HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The head of Montana's wildlife agency said Thursday federal officials will seek to lift federal protections from some threatened grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies in the next two years.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Jeff Hagener told lawmakers he expects the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose rules that could remove two populations of grizzlies from the Endangered Species list.
One rule could lift protections for bears in and around Yellowstone Park in 2015, Hagener said. The other rule ending protections would be for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide region by 2016, he said.
Estimates show about 740 grizzly bears live in and around Yellowstone, while about 1,000 live in the Northern Continental Divide region, Hagener said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Gavin Shire would not confirm in a statement to the Associated Press that there is a timeline for the proposed rules, just that the agency is evaluating the status of grizzly bears. But Hagener said the timeline has been mentioned in several discussions with Fish and Wildlife Service officials in meetings over the last year.
Hagener said his agency is pressing for the delisting.
"We think it's clearly warranted," he said. "We're convinced that population has recovered."
Yellowstone-area grizzlies were delisted in 2007, then returned to the list under court order in 2009. A U.S. District Court judge said at the time that the Fish and Wildlife Service had not shown the bruins' recovery would withstand the loss of a key food source, the nuts from whitebark pine cones. The agency has since done additional scientific work and concluded the bears can switch to other foods, such as elk.
If Fish and Wildlife Service officials propose a rule for grizzly delisting, a 60-day public comment period follows, during which Hagener said thousands of comments would be expected. After the agency analyzes the comments, a final rule could be issued lifting the federal protections.
State and federal officials would then begin a five-year recovery monitoring period similar to what is currently taking place with delisted wolves in the state, Hagener said.
Unless populations decline dramatically during that period, state officials would be charged with the long-term management of the grizzly population. For Yellowstone, that will include working with officials in Wyoming and Idaho. In the Northern Continental Divide, officials would work with those from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Blackfeet Tribe.
Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, who serves on a Wyoming legislative committee that oversees wildlife issues, said Thursday that he expects Wyoming would move quickly to allow trophy hunting of grizzlies once they're delisted.
"I think it would be a very active season here, and I think a lot of people would want to pursue that," Krone said.
Two other grizzly bear recovery areas in Montana, the Cabinet-Yaak and the Bitterroot, are not slated to have federal protections lifted, Hagener said. Currently, up to 55 grizzly bears live in the Cabinet-Yaak area, while no known grizzlies live in the Bitterroot, he said.
Associated Press reporter Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyoming, contributed to this report.