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Grizzly managers face changing trends at summer meeting

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Grizzly bear managers have a lot to digest at their summer meeting this week after big political and practical shifts in the past year.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meets virtually on Wednesday and Thursday, bringing together land and wildlife managers from Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and a constellation of regional and local officials.

They gather as the U.S. Interior Department leadership has switched from President Donald Trump’s Secretary David Bernhardt, who focused on grizzly conflict reduction by expanding bear removal, to President Joe Biden’s Secretary Deb Haaland, who has voiced more support for grizzly protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Wednesday’s session features a status assessment from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley. FWS recently completed a five-year review of the grizzly’s ESA recovery progress, and concluded it still warranted federal protection.

It also gathers as the state governments in Montana and Idaho have placed more emphasis on predator killing in their wildlife agencies. One of the first items on Wednesday’s agenda is a legislative update from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Wildlife Division Administrator Ken McDonald. In addition to changing rules for transporting captured grizzly bears, the Montana Legislature called for expanded hunting measures that could affect grizzly bears, such as hound-chasing for black bears and greater use of snares and bait for wolves.

Wednesday’s session also features two virtual field visits. One explores the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative developed by the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. The second looks at grizzly conflict reduction with discussion from the federal Wildlife Services, Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

IGBC executive coordinator David Diamond said while the group’s summer meeting is traditionally structured around outdoor activities in some geographically relevant grizzly country, continuing pandemic travel limitations have kept this meeting dispersed. The virtual field sessions are an attempt to keep that ground-level emphasis.

"It’s a huge area and a lot of players,” Diamond said. “We hope the December meeting will be in person.”

Public comment will be taken during the Zoom sessions at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday and 11:45 a.m. Thursday. However, past virtual meetings have had last-minute schedule changes and also sometimes allowed comments during specific agenda items.

Thursday’s morning-only session includes discussion about the IGBC’s organization and workplan. That includes consideration of how to handle bear management issues that overlap the six recovery area subcommittees, such as recreation trends in grizzly country and how to deal with bears that travel between recovery areas.

Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states have had ESA protection since 1975, when their numbers were down to around 500 concentrated in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Today, about 1,000 grizzlies inhabit the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between Glacier and Missoula. Another 750 are in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem surrounding Yellowstone National Park.

The Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Area in northwest Montana and the Selkirk Recovery Area in northern Idaho each have an estimated 50 grizzlies. The Bitterroot Recovery Area on the Montana-Idaho border and the North Cascades Recovery Area in Washington have no confirmed resident grizzlies, and very few visiting bears.

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