Grizzly bear stock photo (MTN News)

MISSOULA – A growing number of grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies has sparked a debate over whether the time has come to remove them from federal protection, and that discussion is expected to get some attention during meetings in Missoula this week.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) has wrestled with the challenge of grizzly bear recovery, or bringing the species back from the point of possible extinction, for more than 30 years.

But now, with the numbers of the big bears climbing into the thousands across the region, scientists and biologists have been working toward the day when grizzlies are no longer listed as a “threatened species”.

A major milestone was passed when the IGBC recommended de-listing of the grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem several months ago, a point that is still being challenged in the courts.

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But now, the discussion is turning to the Northern Continental Divide Eco System (NCDE), where bear populations have also been soaring.

While many federal and state biologists suggest the time may have come for the NCDE bears to also lose their federal protection, some tribal and conservation groups believe it may be too soon and that de-listing the bears living in and around Glacier National Park could threaten their survival.

Those conflicting views will get some attention this week as the NCDE’s Ecosystem Subcommittee meets on Wednesday in Missoula.

While no formal proposals are on the table, this week’s meetings could set the stage for a broader discussion by the IGBC’s Executive Committee during their annual meeting in Missoula next month.

While we’re not expecting any specific action, it’s clear the debate over the ultimate management for the northern grizzlies is moving forward. Wednesday’s meeting is being held at Missoula’s DoubleTree Inn.

MTN’s Dennis Bragg