Montana Looking to Lift Protections on Grizzly Bears In and Around Glacier National Park

by Jon D. B.

For the first time in three decades, Montana may open the door to grizzly bear hunting; an issue Glacier National Park is watching intently.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently deliberating a contentious request from the state of Montana. Their government wishes to lift protection of grizzly bears in its northern territory, which includes Glacier National Park.

Grizzlies currently have protection under threatened status. But as Associated Press highlights Monday, this may change if state politicians have their way. Let’s break down the details.

The History: Grizzly Bears in Montana

As of 2021’s end, Northwestern Montana holds the largest grizzly bear population in the Lower 48. At least 1,000 of the species live in Glacier National Park and surrounding wilderness. This is known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem at large.

Yet a staggering 50,000 or more grizzly bears once called the Western U.S. home. By the time the 20th century rolled around, hunting, fur trapping, and habitat loss would all but annihilate the species. A mere 1,000 grizzlies would remain in the U.S. when the Endangered Species Act granted them federal protection in 1975’s landmark decision.

As recently as this March, U.S. government biologists would state that Northwestern Montana’s grizzlies are “biologically recovered” – but in need of “continued protection” to remain so, per AP.

This continued protection is afforded by the Endangered Species Act, which is responsible for the grizzlies’ rehabilitation in the first place. The act makes hunting of grizzly bears illegal outside of Alaska or any special-case permits, as well.

The Issue: Modern Losses, Maulings

The last time a grizzly hunt took place in Montana was under the state’s 14-tag system in 1991. Now, some three decades on, the state’s government is requesting the ability to resume quelling. Their reasoning? Bear rehabilitation has been “too successful,” leading to attacks on livestock and occasional human run-ins and casualties.

“We’ve shown the ability to manage bears, protect their habitat and population numbers,” Director Hank Worsech of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says Monday. “It’s time for us to have full authority for grizzly bears in Montana.”

To do so would grant the state power to deal with “conflict causing” grizzly bears. This, however, is a slippery slope, conservationists warn.

“We don’t believe that there should be hunting of these iconic, native carnivores,” environmentalist John Horning of WildEarth Guardians retorts. “I have no doubt the state would push it to the absolute limit so they could kill as many grizzlies as possible.”

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte says the move would give his wildlife officials “more flexibility” to prevent casualties both human and livestock. But a glimpse at his handling of the state’s gray wolves offers a harsh picture of how this same strategy will impact a still-recovering grizzly bear population.

The Legalities: Petition Incoming

For Endangered Species Act protections to lift across Northern Montana, a legal petition will have to pass. According to USFWS’s Greg Lemon, the petition will file following a December 14 meeting of state wildlife commissioners.

This commission will also be in charge of any future grizzly bear hunts in Montana if the petition comes to fruition.