The debate over bringing grizzly bears back to the Bitterroot is entering a new phase as we start 2024, with the federal government formally considering the re-introduction of the big bears.

It's the latest development in the long-running efforts to bring grizzlies back from the point of extinction in the Northern Rockies.

However, this time around, the upcoming decision is coming after the grizzly sightings in the Bitterroot, and surrounding areas, are already on the increase.

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Part of a larger effort

For decades, leaders of federal and state agencies, along with bear biologists, have been working on plans to restore traditional habitat for the grizzlies. Much of that focus has been on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which covers the region that includes Glacier National Park, the Flathead, Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the Rocky Mountain Front.

But also a part of that discussion and review have been bear populations in other areas, including the Bitterroot.

Formal study underway

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the "notice of intent" to work up an environmental impact statement analyzing the re-introduction of grizzlies to the Bitterroot Ecosystem, to hit that goal by November 2026. That's in keeping with a court order issued last year by the U.S. District Court in Missoula. Over twenty years ago, USFWS had moved to bring grizzlies back into the Bitterroot Recovery Zone, which includes lands in both Western Montana and Idaho, but that was shelved with administration changes in Washington.

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The process began with the publication of a notice in the Federal Register

This week, the notice said USFWS would study the introduction of a "experimental population" of grizzlies in the Bitterroot. People are being given until March 18th to submit comments. There will also be two scoping meetings to explain the plan, although dates for those haven't been announced.

Grizzlies already here

The process is expected to get a lot of attention among Bitterroot residents, especially with repeated sightings of the bears, even in valley locations, over the past couple of years. Yet the addition of more bears is likely to spark renewed debate over human-bear conflicts, with conservation groups arguing the bears are part of the ecosystem.

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