With bear-human conflicts on the rise, wildlife managers in the Northern Rockies are laying the groundwork for trophy hunts for grizzlies in anticipation of the government lifting their threatened species status.
It's expected to be 2014 before about 600 bears around Yellowstone National Park lose their federal protections, and possibly longer for about 1,000 bears in the region centered on Glacier National Park.
Yet already government officials say those populations have recovered to the point that limited hunting for small numbers of bears could occur after protections are lifted — and without harm to the species' decades-long recovery. That could include hunts in areas of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho where run-ins with humans and livestock attacks have increased in recent years.
A federal-state committee that oversees grizzly bears will consider adopting a pro-hunting policy next week during a meeting in Missoula. Precise details on bear hunts have not been crafted.
The government has spent more than $20 million on restoration efforts since grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states were put on the list of federally protected species in 1975.
Four people were killed by grizzlies over the past two years in Yellowstone National Park and nearby areas of Wyoming and Montana — highlighting the problems that have accompanied their rebound in areas frequented by people.
Still, it's taken decades for grizzlies to rebound from widespread extermination, and some wildlife advocates say it's too soon to talk about a hunt.
But state wildlife officials said hunting is a proven approach to wildlife management that could work for grizzlies just as it does for species such as elk, mountain lions and black bears.
"We have bears that are in conflict (with people), and certainly one of the ways that we could deal with that would be to reduce populations through hunting," said Jim Unsworth, deputy director for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
"There's the additional benefit of providing probably one of the most sought-after opportunities in North America — the opportunity to hunt a grizzly bear," he added.
Hunting is not being considered for smaller populations of the bears in the Cabinet-Yaak, North Cascades and Selkirk areas of Idaho, Montana and Washington.
Hunting for grizzlies currently is allowed in Canada and Alaska, where hundreds are taken annually.
Grizzlies lost their threatened species status in 2007 in the Yellowstone region, but protections were restored two years later by a federal judge.
Based on that court ruling, the government is now conducting additional studies on a decline in an important food source for some bears — the cones of white bark pine trees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to again seek to lift the animal's threatened status after the work is completed late next year.
Meanwhile, grizzlies already are dying regularly in the Northern Rockies as the slowly expanding population pushes out of wilderness strongholds and into areas with more people, ranches and croplands.
At least 51 bears have died so far this year in the Yellowstone area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Most have died at the hands of wildlife agents who kill bears that cause repeated problems or during run-ins with hunters, who sometimes shoot the animals in self-defense.
The bear population is closely tracked, and the government sets limits on the percentage of bears that can die in any given year for the population to remain healthy.
With such detailed accounting, grizzly managers could set hunting limits that the species could safely tolerate without risk to the overall population, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly coordinator Chris Servheen.
Chris Colligan with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition said hunting discussions are premature, particularly when the number of bears killed by humans is high even in the absence of hunting. Dave Smith, a conservationist and author of a book on backcountry bear encounters, added that there would be nothing to stop government officials from raising mortality limits to accommodate more hunting.
"I think the plan is to delist grizzlies based on what we have now and then say, 'Whoa, we're changing everything,'" Smith said.
State and federal officials rejected that charge, and said any hunts would be tightly controlled and highly conservative.
Servheen said they would differ significantly from wolf hunts now taking place in the Northern Rockies. For wolves, states have lifted quotas on the predators with the explicit aim of driving down their pack numbers through aggressive hunting and trapping.
By contrast, said Servheen, "you could probably count on one hand" the number of bears that could be legally killed in any given year if hunting is allowed, he said.
"Hunting is a tool, particularly to reduce populations in some areas on the periphery (of their range) where we may not want a lot of bears. We're trying to get it on the radar screen as we approach the management of healthy, recovered populations," he said.