Federal wildlife officials say they're proceeding with a plan that would allow hunters to shoot designated "nuisance" grizzly bears outside of Yellowstone National Park, despite overwhelming public response against the idea.
Larry Shanks, chief of the endangered species unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Billings Gazette this week that a rule allowing the hunt probably won't be published in the federal register until next year.But provisions for the hunt should be in place by the time bears emerge from hibernation in the spring.
The grizzly is listed as a federally protected "threatened" species in the lower 48 states, with populations in Montana, northern Idaho and the Yellowstone Park area.
Montana already holds a grizzly bear hunt in its Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, in the vicinity of Glacier National Park. Wildlife officials set an annual quota of bears that can be killed by other than natural means, and when that quota is reached, the hunt is canceled.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering a nuisance hunt for grizzlies near Yellowstone for more than a year. Hunters chosen by random drawing would be allowed to shoot problem grizzly bears that would otherwise be killed by wildlife officials.
A problem bear is one that has become used to human food and cannot be persuaded to stay away from populated areas.
When the Yellowstone-area nuisance hunt was proposed and opened to public comment earlier this year, the federal agency received hundreds of letters opposing the idea, Shanks said.
Most of the letters said no grizzlies should be shot because humans have invaded their habitat, threatening the bears' survival, he said.
But wildlife officials decided to proceed with the plan because the public comments were emotional and did not make a "valid biological point," Shanks said.
He said grizzlies can become habituated to human areas and food, and that some of those bears will have to be killed by someone.
"We know that bears become habituated to areas where we don't necessarily want them," Shanks said. "You can move them, turn them upside down and they still come back. In that case, there's nothing you can do but eliminate them."
Agency officials also said they thought they could garner additional support for grizzly recovery by allowing hunters an opportunity to hunt the animals.
Last week, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, made up of top administrators from land management and wildlife agencies, also threw its support behind the Yellowstone-area hunt.
Some conservationists said they feared the hunt is a token move to give states greater clout in grizzly management, in preparation to remove the bear's protected status. They also denounced the federal agency's dismissal of the public comments.
Wildlife officials estimated that an average of 1.5 bears would be killed each year. Bears that put people in immediate danger would still be shot by government officials.