US may lift protections for Yellowstone and glacier grizzly bears


The Biden administration took a first step on Friday to end federal protections for grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains, which would open the door to future hunts in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service said state officials have provided “substantial” information that grizzly bears have recovered from threatened extinction in the regions surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

But federal officials have dismissed claims from Idaho that protections should be lifted beyond those areas, and raised concerns about new laws in Republican-run states that could potentially harm the grizzly population.

“We will be fully evaluating these and other potential threats,” said Martha Williams, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Williams told the Montana Wildlife Authority chief in a letter Wednesday that a law allowing grizzly bears to be killed when they attack livestock is inconsistent with the state’s obligation to protect bears. She said the 2023 legislature offers a “good opportunity” to address such issues.

Grizzly populations in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks have increased in recent years.

Friday’s move begins with at least a year of further study before final decisions are made about the Yellowstone and Glacier regions.

States want the protections lifted so they can regain stewardship of grizzly bears and offer hunts to the public. As grizzly populations have increased, more and more animals have moved into human-occupied areas, causing public safety issues and problems for farmers.

State officials have insisted future hunts would be limited and would not endanger the overall population.

After grizzlies temporarily lost shelter in the Yellowstone region a few years ago, Wyoming and Idaho planned hunts that would have killed fewer than two dozen bears in the first hunting season.

In Wyoming, nearly 1,500 people applied for 12 grizzly bear licenses in 2018 before the hunt was blocked in a federal court. About a third of the applicants came from abroad. Idaho only issued a grizzly license before hunting was blocked.

Grizzlies are currently protected in the Glacier and Yellowstone areas.
Grizzlies are currently protected in the Glacier and Yellowstone areas.

Republican lawmakers in the region have also introduced more aggressive policies against gray wolves in recent years, including relaxed trapping rules that could result in grizzlies being accidentally killed.

Up to 50,000 grizzly bears once roamed the western half of the United States. Overhunting and trapping wiped them out in most parts of the country in the early part of the last century, and the last hunts in the northern Rockies were decades ago. There are now more than 2,000 bears in the lower 48 states and much larger populations in Alaska, where hunting is permitted.

The species’ spread into the glacial and Yellowstone ranges has led to human-bear conflict, including regular attacks on livestock and sometimes fatal human abuse.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte welcomed the government’s announcement, saying it could result in the state reclaiming management of a species placed under federal protection in 1975. He said the grizzly bear’s recovery “represents a conservation success.”

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte advocates removing protections.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte advocates removing protections.

Montana operated grizzly bear hunts until 1991 under a federal protection waiver that allowed 14 bears to be killed each fall.

The federal government tried to remove protections for the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly bears under former President Donald Trump in 2017. The hunts in Wyoming and Idaho were about to begin when a judge restored protections and sided with environmental groups who said the delisting was not based on sound scientific evidence.

These groups want federal protections to be maintained and no hunting allowed so bears can continue to move to new areas.

“We shouldn’t be willing to trust the states,” said attorney Andrea Zaccardi of the Center for Biological Diversity. Derek Goldman of the Endangered Species Coalition said the state administration is a disaster and he’s glad federal agencies are scrutinizing state laws.

Dave Evans, a hunting guide at Wood River Ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming, said the issue is complex and he can understand why people fall on both sides of the debate.

“They have so many opinions and some of them aren’t based on science, but the biologists are the ones who know the facts about what the populations are like and what should be considered the target for each area,” Evans said. “If you’re going to manage grizzly bears, there’s a sustainable number that needs to be balanced. I’m not a biologist, but I would follow science.”

US government scientists said the region’s grizzly bears have made a biological recovery, but ruled in 2021 that conservation efforts were still needed due to human-caused bear deaths and other pressures. Bears considered problematic are regularly killed by game wardens.

Demand for bear hunting licenses would likely be high if protections were lifted, Evans said.

“They would definitely have higher demand and it would probably be very expensive,” Evans said. “A guided bear hunt in Alaska can start at around $20,000, so I would imagine it would be very desirable.”

A decision on the petitions from the federal states was long overdue. Idaho Gov. Brad Little filed a notice Thursday that he intends to sue over the delay. Idaho’s petition was broader than Montana’s and aimed to remove protections statewide.

That would have included small bear populations in parts of Idaho, Montana and Washington State, where biologists say the animals have not yet recovered to sustainable levels. It could also have prevented the bears from returning to other areas such as the North Cascades region.

“While we continue to evaluate the USFWS’ decision, this is another example of federal overstatement and appears to be having a disproportionate impact on northern Idaho,” Little said in an emailed statement. He said his office would “continue to take action against the federal government.”

Encounters with grizzly bears are generally rare in northern Idaho, although wildlife managers occasionally warn people to keep an eye out for the animals. In 2021, Idaho Fish and Game officials estimated that there were between 40 and 50 grizzly bears in the northernmost part of the state.

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