Late last week, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced its intention to review two petitions that could remove grizzly bears from the federal Endangered Species List (ESL)—and ultimately open the door for grizzly bear hunting in the Lower 48. The petitions were filed by the state fish and game agencies of Wyoming and Montana—neighboring states with the bulk of the continental U.S.’s grizzlies. They requested state control over the management of grizzly bear populations in two separate Rocky Mountain ecosystems—one surrounding Glacier National Park, known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and another centered around Yellowstone National Park, known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A third petition, seeking to delist grizzly populations in Idaho, was denied. 

“The Service finds two of these petitions present substantial information indicating the grizzly bear in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) may qualify as their own distinct population segment and may warrant removal from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife,” the USFWS wrote in a statement issued on Friday, February 3. “[The USFWS] will now initiate a comprehensive status review of the grizzly bear in the NCDE and GYE…to inform a 12-month finding.”

Delisting Efforts Date Back More Than 15 Years

The decision is part of an ongoing saga that stretches back to 2007, when the USFWS made its first attempt to remove grizzly bears from the ESL. Grizzlies have been delisted and re-listed multiple times since then, with the most recent attempt occurring in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2017. That decision was ultimately overturned by the 9th Circuit Courts of Appeals just days before grizzly bear hunts were slated to take place in Wyoming and Idaho. 

A USFWS map shows the distribution of grizzly bear populations throughout the Lower 48. USFWS

In Montana, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers praised the USFWS’s recent decision to consider the state’s request to delist grizzly bears. “FWS took a step in the right direction today, which is a testament to the strength of grizzly populations in Montana,” said Sen. John Tester, a democrat from the north-central part of the state, in a press release. “Now state government needs to develop science-based management plans to ensure success, and I’ll hold the Biden Administration’s feet to the fire to provide support.”

A Caveat for Montana

In a letter to Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks Director Hank Worsech, the Director of USFWS, Martha Williams, expressed concerns about recent grizzly bear-related legislation in the Big Sky State that she says conflicts with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Williams and her agency plan to take this new legislation into consideration when conducting the 12-month review of Montana’s petition to remove ESA protections from the state’s grizzly bear populations.

In her letter, she cited Senate Bill 98, which passed in May 2021 and states that grizzly bears can be killed by private citizens if the animals are attacking or threatening livestock.  “The law could lead members of the public to wrongly believe that killing a grizzly bear when it is killing or threatening livestock is legal,” wrote Williams, a native Montanan who served as the director of Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks from 2017 to 2020. “In fact, it is illegal under the ESA, and individuals taking a bear under these circumstances would be subject to possible civil and criminal penalties. 

Williams went on to recommend that the Montana legislature bring SB98 and other recently-passed laws dealing with wolf hunting and trapping “into alignment with federal regulations.” In an interview with the Billings Gazette, the author of SB98, Rep. Butch Gillespie who represents a district along the Rocky Mountain Front, indicated his willingness to amend the law in a way that doesn’t conflict with the ESA. 

Wyoming Responds

State officials in Wyoming welcomed Friday’s news with open arms as well. “Wyoming’s petition, filed early last year, shows that – after 46 years, and over $52 million dollars of investment by Wyoming sportsmen and women – the population of the [grizzly] bear is far above long-established recovery goals,” Governor Mark Gordon said, in a statement. “In addition, Wyoming has an established framework to provide adequate protection and management of the bear in the future. I trust the USFWS will continue to use the best scientific evidence, and I hope that Wyoming will soon manage this species as part of our treasured wildlife populations.”

Wyoming had plans to allow grizzly bear hunting back in 2018—with a quota of 22 bears—before the hunt was halted by a federal judge in Montana. In a statement provided to Field & Stream this morning, Wyoming Game & Fish Director Brian Nesvik said his agency is fully prepared to assume responsibility for grizzly bear management should the opportunity arise. “Wyoming is fully committed to long-term grizzly bear conservation.  Our management plan has been tested and is based in the best science and robust public input,” he said. “Wyoming has a strong track record of successfully managing other large carnivore species like black bears, mountain lions and gray wolves. The Department will be discussing the timeline and next steps with the Fish and Wildlife Service in the coming days.”

A Fraught Road Ahead

While delisting proponents are celebrating the USFWS’s recent announcement, don’t expect to see grizzly bear hunts playing out in the West anytime in the immediate future.

“[The] findings represent a relatively low bar, requiring only that the petitioner provide information that the petitioned action may be warranted,” the USFWS said in its statement. “The next steps include an in-depth status review and analyses using the best available science and information to arrive at a 12-month finding on whether the removal of ESA protections for grizzly bears in the NCDE and GYE are warranted. If so, removing ESA protections would then be initiated through a separate rulemaking process, with additional public notice and comment.”

And even if all of those bureaucratic hurdles are cleared, there will be plenty of legal challenges in the federal court system, propped up by well-funded anti-hunting groups, that could ultimately derail the whole process. Field & Stream will continue to report on the federal review.