BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana wildlife commissioners have endorsed a plan to manage the largest grizzly bear population in the Lower 48 states at current levels as federal officials consider lifting protections on the animals. Thursday's decision sets a population objective of at least 800 bears across a 16,000-square mile (42,000-square kilometer) area of northwestern Montana. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials say they plan to maintain a higher number of animals — roughly 1,000 bears — to give the population a protective buffer. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks will take public comments on the proposal before a final decision expected in December. A population of about 700 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park lost their protected status last year. Wyoming and Idaho plan to allow hunting of the animals this fall.

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