NOEL KING, HOST:
A record number of grizzly bears were killed this year near Glacier National Park in Montana. The number was high last year, too. Now, at the same time, the Trump administration wants to take the grizzly off of the endangered species list. Aaron Bolton of Montana Public Radio has the story.
AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Independent researchers and conservationists, like Mike Bader, attribute the record number of grizzly deaths to a growing human population in and around this ecosystem, driving bears into high-risk populated areas.
MIKE BADER: There's a lot of things that are putting pressure on bears - you know, a lot more recreation, mountain biking. I mean, on and on.
BOLTON: Bader argues that the grizzly population here at least needs to double before removing them from the endangered species list. And 91 being killed over two years is troubling, he says.
BADER: Because you have to be worried that it could become the new normal unless it's curbed. And if it becomes the new normal, we're going in reverse.
BOLTON: Most of the recent deaths are bears getting hit by cars and trains or being euthanized after killing livestock. Another eight had been removed to other ecosystems or sent to zoos by wildlife managers. But area rancher Kristen Kipp (ph) says there are still more than enough bears.
KRISTEN KIPP: The population of the grizzlies here in this area - they are definitely recovered. The numbers will say that.
BOLTON: State and federal wildlife agencies estimate there are about 1,050 grizzlies in this ecosystem, 36 percent more than 2004. Kipp says bears are moving out of the Rocky Mountains onto the eastern plains, where she lives.
KIPP: My almost-4-year-old, when she was a baby - the sound of her crying brought in a grizzly 10 feet from my house.
BOLTON: Montana State bear biologist Cecily Costello calls the grizzly population here recovered. She says more bears dying is evidence that older grizzlies in the core ecosystem are pushing younger grizzlies into more populated areas.
CECILY COSTELLO: The population itself is increasing over time. And if you look at mortality as a proportion of that population, you would expect it to increase.
BOLTON: Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte agrees. He wants grizzlies removed from the endangered species list, so state wildlife officials can more aggressively manage them. In October, Gianforte brought U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt out to Montana.
GREG GIANFORTE: We did see a bear on the way back - two - a sow and a cub, 2 miles out of town.
BOLTON: He wanted Bernhardt heart to hear from people who say the growing number of bears pose a human safety risk and are killing more livestock. Bernhardt told the locals that management practices should be changed regardless of grizzlies' endangered species status.
DAVID BERNHARDT: We have some immediate challenges that we need to think about that are different today than they were even just a few years ago. And our thinking probably needs to reflect that.
BOLTON: The Interior Department's efforts to remove grizzlies from the endangered species list have been tied up in federal court since 2017. Some bear biologists outside the federal government say there still are not enough bears to delist now. They worry state management would lead to more bears being killed, including in trophy hunts. State bear biologist Cecily Costello disagrees.
COSTELLO: The job, regardless of their status, is always trying to reduce conflict and minimize human-caused mortality so that it's not adversely affecting their population.
BOLTON: And Costello isn't ready to call the spike in grizzly deaths a trend after two years. But even if it is, she says those numbers are sustainable. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in northwest Montana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.