BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Wildlife managers will seek to maintain grizzly bear numbers in the three-state Yellowstone region near current levels as they move toward lifting protections for the threatened species, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman said Wednesday.
The agency has set a management goal of 674 grizzly bears across the 19,300-square-mile region. That's enough of the animals to "ensure a sustainable and resilient population," spokeswoman Serena Baker said.
The population target is consistent with the average number of bears between 2002 and 2014. But it's about 6 percent below the most recent tally of 714 bears at the end of 2014.
The Yellowstone region encompasses a vast area of wilderness, parks and forested lands in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Conflicts between bears and humans have spiked in recent years as grizzlies enter areas with more people and livestock.
State officials want an end to federal protections to allow limited hunting. They've been pushing for almost a decade to revoke the animal's threatened status, a step that was taken in 2007 only to be reversed by a federal judge two years later.
Some wildlife advocates contend the Yellowstone population remains too fragile to justify lifting protections. In recent months, they've been joined in their opposition by representatives of dozens of American Indian tribes, primarily in the American West, who don't want trophy hunting of a species many tribes consider sacred.
Under an agreement with Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, state wildlife officials have committed to halting hunting if the population dips below 600 bears across the region. As that number increases, more bears could be killed, according to state and federal officials.
"It would be very conservative to start," said Ron Aasheim, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "What we need to do is show that we are fully intending to manage bears reasonably, and we will stay above certain levels."
The number of bears that could be killed would be set annually and allocated among the states according to how many bears each had, said Renny MacKay with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Bears living outside the 19,300-square-mile Yellowstone "monitoring area" would not be counted toward the population goal. Similarly, bears killed outside the monitoring area would not count toward annual bear mortality caps.
Josh Osher with Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group, said the government proposal threatens to halt or even reverse the grizzly's hard-fought recovery. It does nothing to address livestock grazing in areas inhabited by bears, Osher said, and would allow unlimited hunting in areas where bears might migrate in search of new habitat.
"They're itching to (lift protections) for the bears because of political expediency," Osher said. "We really wanted to see some safe zones for bears outside of national parks, and we're not getting that from the Fish and Wildlife Service."
A decision on whether to propose a rule to lift protections is expected in early 2016, Baker said. No such proposal is pending for the only other large concentration of grizzlies in the Lower 48, an area around Glacier National Park in northwest Montana and southern Canada with an estimated 1,000 bears.
Since the 2009 court ruling affecting Yellowstone bears, government biologists have sought to bolster with new research their conclusions that bear food supplies are not threatened by climate change and other factors. They've also pledged that some habitat protections would remain in place regardless of the animal's legal status.
Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies have been in place since 1975, after hunting and trapping drove them to widespread extermination early last century.
Since 2010, grizzlies have killed six people in and around Yellowstone and regularly maul hunters and domestic livestock outside the park.