Hunting needs to be part of the toolbox for managing grizzly bears when they no longer have endangered species protection, but no one's close to saying what that tool might look like.
Members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee voted Tuesday to draft a policy statement on grizzly hunting during their winter meeting in Missoula this week.
However, they took pains to add that the bears must be recovered before they can be treated like elk and deer.
"We need to alert the public we're aware of all the different aspects of bear management," said committee member Gregg Losinski of Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "But we can't wait. We've been thinking about this for over a decade."
The statement wouldn't authorize grizzly bear hunting or dictate how a hunting season might take place. Rather, it would lay the groundwork for states to develop their own bear management plans when and if the bears lose federal protection.
"This topic came about because two ecosystem populations are at or approaching recovery status," said committee Chairman Harv Fosgren of the U.S. Forest Service.
"We need to explore what that means and how we're going to talk about that."
About 1,000 grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem north of Interstate 90 in Montana. Another 600 live in the Yellowstone Ecosystem surrounding Yellowstone National Park. A few more tiny populations live in northwest Montana, Idaho and Washington.
Hailee Newman of the Buffalo Field Campaign argued the effort was premature because the bears' recovery was still hypothetical.
"Before they're even delisted, we're talking about keeping their numbers down," Newman said. "Why are we brainstorming about ways to keep grizzlies from walking where they once walked?"
Livestock owners in the audience said they were pleased to hear the discussion because it meant that their concerns about bears killing cattle or threatening rural communities were getting attention.
The committee agreed to produce a draft statement as well as some talking points explaining the policy by Thursday.