The Biden administration took a first step Friday toward ending federal protections for grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains, which would open the door to future hunting in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state officials provided "substantial" information that grizzlies have recovered from the threat of extinction in the regions surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
But federal officials rejected claims by Idaho that protections should be lifted beyond those areas, and they raised concerns about new laws from the Republican-led states that could potentially harm grizzly populations.
"We will fully evaluate these and other potential threats," said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Friday's move kicks off at least a year of further study before final decisions about the Yellowstone and Glacier regions.
State officials have insisted any future hunts would be limited and not endanger the overall population.
However, Republican lawmakers in the region in recent years also adopted more aggressive policies against gray wolves, including loosened trapping rules that could lead to grizzlies being inadvertently killed.
As many as 50,000 grizzlies once roamed the western half of the U.S. They were exterminated in most of the country early last century by overhunting and trapping, and the last hunts in the northern Rockies occurred decades ago. There are now more than 2,000 bears in the Lower 48 states and much larger populations in Alaska, where hunting is allowed.
The species' expansion in the Glacier and Yellowstone areas has led to conflicts between humans and bears, including periodic attacks on livestock and sometimes fatal maulings of humans.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte welcomed the administration's announcement and said it could lead to the state reclaiming management of a species that's been under federal protections since 1975. He said the grizzly's recovery "represents a conservation success."
The federal government removed protections for the Yellowstone ecosystem's grizzlies in 2017. Wyoming and Idaho were set to allow grizzlies to be hunted when a judge restored those protections in 2018, siding with environmental groups that said delisting wasn't based on sound science. Those groups want protections kept in place so bears can continue moving into new areas.
"We should not be ready to trust those states," said attorney Andrea Zaccardi, of the Center for Biological Diversity.
U.S. government scientists have said the region's grizzlies are biologically recovered but in 2021 decided that protections were still needed because of human-caused bear deaths and other pressures. Bears considered problematic are regularly killed by wildlife officials.
A decision on the states' petitions was long overdue. Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Thursday had filed notice he intended to sue over the delay. Idaho's petition was broader than the ones filed by Montana and sought to lift protections nationwide.
That would have included small populations of bears in portions of Idaho, Montana and Washington state, where biologists say the animals have not yet recovered to sustainable levels. It also could have prevented the return of bears to other areas such as the North Cascades region.