By Chris Peterson

Montana will join Wyoming, Idaho and the federal government in appealing a federal court ruling that put the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population back on the Endangered Species List.

"Grizzly bear recovery and conservation is an amazing success story that's taken decades of hard work and dedication. The science is clear that grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are recovered," said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams.

But district court judge Dana Christensen disagreed in a September ruling, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't done enough to ensure that the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem would have connectivity. There's about 1,000 bears in the NCDE, which includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and about 750 in the Greater Yellowstone.

But the two populations rarely, if ever meet, and face a host of barriers -- mostly from roads and human settlement.

The Yellowstone lawsuit came after the Crow Tribe sued, challenging grizzly bear hunts in Wyoming and Idaho. Wyoming's hunt would have allowed the taking of more than 20 bears.

"With grizzly bear recovery goals met in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the safeguards in place to ensure healthy populations will persist, it's time to hand over management to the states," said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Montana recently endorsed a rule that says the state will ensure that a minimum of 800 bears will persist in the NCDE, which, biologists say, means they'll effectively manage the region for about 1,000 bears.

In Montana, grizzly bears are expanding from beyond the core areas where they've met population recovery goals -- the GYE and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. They are showing up in places they haven't been for decades, like the prairie east of the Rocky Mountain Front, parts of western Montana and areas northeast of Yellowstone National Park.

But the bears that travel east often run into trouble with farmers and ranchers.

Where bears are really needed for recovery is the Selway-Bitterroot, which could provide the necessary connectivity between the Yellowstone and NCDE populations.

Right now, however, there are few bears in the Selway, though one was captured earlier this year roaming around a golf course near Stevensville, south of Missoula.

Meanwhile, it was a tough year for grizzly bears in the NCDE, with more than 51 killed or removed from the ecosystem -- the most ever. On the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe reservation, a total of 17 bears were killed. A number tribal officials recently told Montana Public Radio is unsustainable.

The tribe is currently investigating the shooting of two sow bears earlier this fall. One was killed by a shotgun blast, and other had to be put down as well after someone shot it in the face.

Both bears were lactating, meaning they had cubs of the year, which weren't likely to survive without their mothers.

A reward of up to $3,000 is available for information leading to a conviction on the bear deaths.

The state is looking for a more comprehensive approach to bear management moving forward.

"Montana has long been a leader in conservation and now we have a unique opportunity to forge a path forward for these iconic animals that incorporates the diverse values of our citizens as part of a solution," \Bullock said. "Ultimately a comprehensive and collaborative approach to bear management across the state is the best path toward a durable delisting rule and balancing the needs and goals of our state's citizens."

(c)2018 the Hungry Horse News (Columbia Falls, Mont.)