By Matt Hudson Explore Big Sky Editorial Assistant

While Montana’s grizzly bears mill about the forests, debate over their federal protection status is gaining steam once again. From Yellowstone to Glacier, grizzly management will be examined on the heels of what has been called one of the most successful species recovery stories.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved the process forward on May 2 by introducing a draft conservation strategy should the bears be delisted. The document pertains to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, an area of over 27 million acres in western Montana and Idaho that stretches from Bozeman to the Canadian border and includes Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and tribal lands.

The strategy would add more than $437,000 to the current grizzly management cost. It doesn’t call for delisting, but would be implemented in that event.

“We developed this strategy because maintenance of a healthy, recovered grizzly population depends on the effective continuation of many partnerships to manage and conserve the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bear population and its habitat,” said Noreen Walsh, Mountain-Prairie regional director, in a USFWS press release.

The plan sets a minimum healthy population figure at 800 bears. Around 1,000 currently live in the ecosystem, according to Jamie Jonkel, a wildlife management specialist and bear expert for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He said the population has grown at about 3-4 percent annually in recent years.

“We’re lucky, this state is pretty darn wild,” Jonkel said. “This really is the last opportunity for this kind of thing to happen.”

The public comment period for the USFWS draft management strategy ends Aug. 1.

In the Greater Yellowstone area, the delisting discussion is ongoing. The bears were delisted in 2007, but two years later, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy reversed that decision after conservation groups called for its review.

On July 16, researchers began an effort to trap and tag grizzlies in the Yellowstone area to monitor the regional population. One focus is determining how the decline of whitebark pine trees, a primary food source for grizzlies, is affecting the population, according to Frank van Manen, team leader for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

Judge Molloy named the decline of the whitebark trees in his 2009 ruling as part of the reason to relist the bears.

The bears may be able to adapt to other food sources and grow in numbers even as the whitebark pine declines, said Ken McDonald, MFWP wildlife division administrator. Once the interagency study team’s findings are released, he foresees a move to delist in 2014.

The IGBST study is routine, according to van Manen and Chris Servheen, coordinator for the USFWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Program.

“The monitoring work is ongoing, and it’s been ongoing for almost 30 years now,” Servheen said, noting that the USFWS has not begun an official process to delist the bears.

The study will continue through Aug. 15, and van Manen urged recreationists not to enter posted research areas.

“We just ask that everybody pays close attention to that and follows the signs for the safety of both the people and the bears,” he said.

A separate, multi-year grizzly population study is underway in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, a 2.4 million-acre region in northwest Montana.

Grizzly delisting has been a point of contention for nearly a decade. While most state and federal wildlife agencies support the species’ removal from the endangered list, other groups have taken strong stands against it.

In June, the environmental law organization Earthjustice sent a letter to Servheen’s office on behalf of eight conservation groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the organization that brought the Yellowstone delisting decision before a judge, leading to its reversal in 2009. The 14-page letter calls for the continued protection of Yellowstone-area grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act. It cites concerns about food sources, habitat quality and other factors they say need further examination before delisting becomes a reality.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition doesn’t want the grizzlies to remain on the endangered list forever, said Jeff Welsch, a GYC representative. They want to be sure the proper elements are in place to support continued population growth.

“We’re saying, let’s see how the grizzly bear team answers these questions about food sources,” Welsch said.

But lifting the endangered status doesn’t mean the bears will be left alone.

“For both of [the ecosystems], there are commitments by state and federal agencies to ensure that populations remain recovered,” McDonald said.

The Montana Wildlife Federation, a hunting and fishing advocacy group, supports delisting and subsequent management of Montana’s grizzly bears.

“We see the status of grizzlies in Montana as a symbol that the Endangered Species Act does work,” said Nick Gevock, MWF director of outreach. He said that “extremely limited” hunting could be one management tool in the future.

Grizzly bears were originally placed on the endangered species list in 1975. The act defines two categories of declining species: “Endangered” species are believed to be on the brink of extinction, while “threatened” species may reach that point in the near future. Grizzlies are currently listed as threatened.

The public comment period for the NCDE management strategy ends Aug. 1. Comments can be sent to the Grizzly Bear Recovery office at ncdecs@fws.gov.