BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Trophy grizzly bear hunts are under consideration for the Northern Rockies in the surest sign yet that more than 30 years of federal protection for the fearsome animal is nearing an end across much of the region.
An estimated 1,600 bears inhabit the landscape around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, and for now, they're protected as a threatened species.
But federal officials are working on plans to lift those protections as soon as 2014 for bears in the Yellowstone area. Bears around Glacier would follow.
Authority over the animals — which can top 600 pounds and live for 25 years — would transfer to state agencies. And with human-bear conflicts and livestock attacks on the rise, wildlife officials in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming said hunting would help them deal with problem bears.
Yet officials stressed that any grizzly season would differ significantly from the aggressive wolf hunts now underway in the region.
Idaho and Montana have lifted quotas on wolves with the explicit aim of driving down pack numbers. Hunters killed roughly 200 wolves in just the past few months in the two states, and 57 have been killed in Wyoming.
By contrast, "you could probably count on one hand" the number of bears that could be legally killed if hunting is allowed, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The wolf hunt is really targeted at reducing the number of wolves," Servheen said. "We're not trying to reduce the bear population anywhere. ... It would be a very careful, limited hunt."
A federal-state committee that oversees grizzly bears will consider adopting a pro-hunting policy during a meeting next week.
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