BILLINGS, Mont. — Wildlife officials endorsed a plan Thursday to keep northwestern Montana's grizzly population at roughly 1,000 bears as the state seeks to bolster its case that lifting federal protections will not lead to the bruins' demise.
The proposal adopted on a preliminary vote by Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners sets a target of at least 800 grizzlies across a 16,000-square mile (42,000-square kilometer) expanse just south of the U.S.-Canada border.
However, officials pledged to manage for a higher number, about 1,000 bears, to give the population a protective buffer, said Dillon Tabish with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
That's about the same number of bears now living in the region that encompasses the vast forests of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Grizzlies also are increasingly found on the open plains to the east of Glacier, where they can quickly run into conflicts with farmers and ranchers.
Grizzlies in northwestern Montana can top 400 pounds (180 kilograms) and have been known to live up to 35 years, surviving on a diet that ranges from elk calves and berries to insects.
In setting a population target, state officials were trying to balance calls from wildlife advocates to conserve grizzlies with growing pressure from livestock groups and some landowners that want to get rid of the animals' federal protections.
"Montana has consistently, unlike some of its neighbors, shown that we are going to take a long-term perspective on respecting these populations," said Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion. "We understand their economic value but we also understand that they do have impacts on local landowners."
The agency plans to take public comment on the proposal and host a series of public meetings before a final decision expected in December.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials consider the region's grizzlies recovered from widespread extermination last century. They're expected to soon issue a formal proposal to lift the population's threatened species protections, but are first awaiting the outcome of a court case involving Yellowstone grizzlies.
Public hunting of the animals could occur at some point in the future if federal officials move forward with their plans. No hunting plans have been crafted, but officials said if a hunt were to occur it would be constrained by the population objectives endorsed Thursday.
Wildlife advocates who appeared before the commission argued that keeping protections in place would increase the likelihood of bears expanding into new habitat and make it more likely for the species to survive long-term.
Ranchers and officials in the region are hopeful that lifting protections will allow the state to better address grizzly attacks on livestock that have grown more frequent as the population has grown and spread into agricultural areas.
About 700 grizzlies living in and around Yellowstone National Park lost their protected status last year when they were removed from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's threatened species list.
Wyoming and Idaho plan to allow hunting of Yellowstone-area bears this fall. Those plans could be derailed by a pending court challenge that goes before a federal judge in Missoula, Montana, later this month.
Montana officials decided to hold off for the time being on a hunt in the Yellowstone area to demonstrate the state's commitment to conserving grizzlies.