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Researchers Express Concerns Over Grizzly Bear Population Monitoring

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Researchers and state and U.S. agencies differ on how they believe grizzly bears will fare if the species is delisted. (Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park)
Researchers and state and U.S. agencies differ on how they believe grizzly bears will fare if the species is delisted. (Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
December 12, 2016

MISSOULA, Mont. – It’s looking like grizzly bears will be removed from the endangered species list in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, but some researchers are concerned that the model used for predicting the bear's population won't hold up if hunting resumes.

The grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is thought to be around 700. To arrive at this number, states rely on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and its estimator, called Chao2. But using a different modeler called RAMAS, Professor Len Broberg at the University of Montana predicted a sharper decline than did Chao2 if grizzly hunting is permitted.

"Even if things stay basically as they have been for the past decade, my model indicates that the rate of harvest they're projecting may cause some serious problems for grizzly bear population size,” Broberg said.

The committee's model underestimates the number of males that would be killed by hunters, Broberg said. But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks dispute this claim.

Ken McDonald, wildlife division administrator at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the agency will continue to rely on the Chao2 system to monitor the number of bears. He argued that if hunting is approved, it will be done in a responsible manner with the three states working together.

"There's this misperception that hunting is going to be wide open, unlimited,” McDonald said. “All the states have put together - as a requirement of delisting - what hunting would look like in their state."

The agency does not plan to track bear numbers on its own.

In November, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk was the lone dissenter on an updated management plan for grizzly delisting. He has expressed concerns about the method used for counting bear numbers.

Broberg said the population is sizable, but still in a tenuous position.

"There certainly is a rate of hunting that the population could probably sustain," he said. "I’m concerned that the rate that's being proposed right now does not necessarily match up well with that objective."

The U.S. Geological Survey said at least 55 grizzlies were killed this year, an unusually high mortality rate for the bears.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meets on Tuesday in Missoula.

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