BILLINGS, Mont. — 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.
Precise details on bear hunts have not been crafted. Officials said raising the topic now could help defuse future animosity toward hunts.
Four people were killed by grizzlies over the past two years in Yellowstone National Park and nearby areas of Wyoming and Montana – highlighting the problems that have accompanied their rebound in areas frequented by people.
Still, it's taken decades for grizzlies to rebound from widespread extermination, and some wildlife advocates argue that it's too soon to talk about hunting.
The government has spent more than $20 million on restoration efforts since grizzly bears in the lower 48 states were put on the list of federally protected species in 1975.
Chris Colligan with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition said hunting discussions are premature, particularly when the number of bears killed by humans is high even in the absence of hunting.
At least 51 bears have died so far this year in the Yellowstone area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Most have died at the hands of wildlife agents who kill bears that cause repeated problems or during run-ins with hunters, who sometimes shoot the animals in self-defense.
Hunting is not being considered for smaller grizzly populations in the Cabinet-Yaak, North Cascades and Selkirk areas of Idaho, Montana and Washington.
Hunting for grizzlies currently is allowed in Canada and Alaska, where hundreds are taken annually.
Grizzlies temporarily lost their threatened species status in 2007 in the Yellowstone region. Protections were restored in 2009 by federal court order.