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Delisting Grizzlies in Yellowstone

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Grizzlies in Yellowstone have reached a recovery level worthy of adjusting their status.

Since being placed on the endangered species list in 1975, the North American grizzly bear has rebounded significantly, particularly in the Yellowstone Park region.

Now the grizzly is about to be delisted, and the decision has received acclaim as well as criticism. Although numbers have more than tripled in the last 39 years (when only about 200 bears remained in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem), some conservation groups fear the grizzly population is not yet strong enough to survive without its current protections.

But while grizzly numbers are still small, the bears are about to overwhelm their available resources. Therefore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to issue its second proposal to remove Yellowstone’s grizzlies from the endangered species list and allow the population to be managed by the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in early 2015.

The Yellowstone Grizzly’s Story

As early as 1900, Yellowstone was known as a place where tourists could interact with grizzly bears. But as more people invaded bear habitats, the number of conflicts between humans and grizzlies grew, followed by an increase in actions to control bears. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the National Park Service took significant action to better manage the bear population, but at that point it was almost too late.

As many as 740 grizzly bears are now believed to be living in the 14-million-acre Yellowstone Park area, a significant increase from the fewer than 150 that remained in 1975 when the species was listed as endangered. From 1983 to 2001, the grizzly population in the region increased from 4.1 to 7.6 percent each year. Since then, however, those rates have leveled off to about 2 percent.

The USFWS first delisted grizzlies in 2007, but when several environmental groups took the agency to court, the species’ endangered status was reinstated in 2009. The court ruled that USFWS failed to fully consider the impacts of the climate-based decline of whitebark pine, the grizzly’s diet staple. A federal appeals court upheld the decision in 2011.

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Still, USFWS believes the grizzly’s diet is varied and flexible enough to withstand a decline in whitebark and directed the Grizzly Bear Study Team to review research of the Yellowstone grizzly from the past three decades. Researchers have since concluded that a multitude of alternative food is available to replace a lack of pine nuts, since grizzlies are not waking up skinny in the spring or migrating beyond their home ranges in search of food.

Many are still concerned, however, that the grizzly’s population is increasing more slowly than in recent decades. Scientists believe fewer cubs are surviving to adulthood because of higher bear densities, not because of declining whitebark. But Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the USFWS, believes the declining population growth is precisely why Yellowstone’s grizzlies should be delisted.

“We’ve pretty much filled the habitat here,” he said.

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Opposition to Delisting the Grizzly

Some scientists believe the Grizzly Bear Study Team’s report doesn’t fully address the dangers of increased meat-eating among the bears. According to David Mattson, who worked on the team from 1979 until 1993, bears eating more large animals such as elk and livestock could lead to more lethal run-ins with people.

“When bears traverse the landscape looking for food, they bump into people at high rates,” bear advocate Louisa Willcox told Outside Online. “And when they bump into people, they tend to die at high rates,” often because they become aggressive or a nuisance (threatening livestock, raiding garbage cans).

Many, however, are more concerned how the grizzly population will fare when it’s no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act. They fear the current population is too small and isolated to ensure its long-term viability.

According to Grizzly People, the current population is still only about a fourth of what is needed to maintain genetic variability of the species over time. If, instead, the grizzly population were allowed to grow into the several thousands, the long-term health of the population would be better assured. To accomplish such numbers, however, the areas designated for bear habitats would need to increase and even connect to grizzly ecosystems to the species’ source population in Canada.

The group also notes that the USFWS plan fails to recognize environmental changes in the region, including the booming population growth in the region and global warming’s impact not only on whitebark pine, but other food sources including cutthroat trout.

Other concerns relate to the adequacy of bear management by the relevant state governments. According to Grizzly People, Wyoming’s bear-management plan consists of keeping the population below 500 bears, which would require the killing of about 50 bears each year. Some Wyoming counties even prohibit bears within their borders, and law enforcement are directed to kill any bears located. The states are also expected to allow bear hunting within their borders.

Delisting opponents also point to the umbrella-species nature of the grizzly bear. By protecting the grizzly bear, other troubled species that share its environment are also protected. For example, if grizzly bears are protected, the declining wolverine population, which is not covered by Endangered Species Act protection, as well as various species of lesser-known songbirds and amphibians, also benefit.

Based on these and other concerns, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice are expected to once again sue the USFWS in order to have the bears relisted.

“These ecosystems are already changing, and the Yellowstone grizzly bear shows us how deeply this issue will affect the potential survival of some of the things we really care a lot about,” Tim Preso, Earthjustice attorney for the Northern Rockies region, told High Country News.

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Support for Grizzly Delisting

For every argument against delisting grizzly bears, there is at least another in support of the change. Servheen says that delisting should be viewed as a positive change.

“The objective of the Endangered Species Act is to get the listed species to the point at which protection under the act is no longer required, Servheen told Vital Ground. “That’s what we’ve always worked toward.”

Servheen also explained that transferring the management of grizzly populations to the state level does not equate a free-for-all hunt for the bears. Because there are checks and balances in place to limit what actions the states can take, the population should be protected. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey would set a sustainable mortality limit based on the percentage of adult male and female bears and cubs that could die and leave a stable population.

“Delisting is not a crisis,” he said. “Things won’t go back to the way they were in 1975 when there were no regulations, habitat protection would be in place and there’d be strict limits on mortality so populations won’t decline.”

Even the National Wildlife Federation supports delisting Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. The agency believes not only that the bear population is to a point at which it no longer needs the ESA, but also that the USFWS has a recovery plan in place that will continue to protect the species.

The NWF’s confidence is inspired by the designation of six million acres as a primary conservation area for grizzly bears, state management plans that define sustainable mortality rates and excessive monitoring of food supplies, threats to habitat, population numbers and mortality rates.

“We’ve got a gold-plated management plan,” Servheen told Outside Online. “The Endangered Species Act needs success stories. If we can take a difficult animal like grizzly bears and increase their numbers, it shows that the act works.”

Should the NSFWS’s projections be wrong, the grizzly bear won’t be doomed for extinction. According to Servheen, if states depart from the recommended mortality rates, the grizzly bear can be emergency relisted within two weeks.

“I’m not worried,” Servheen said. “We have a very carefully devised and regulated system to make sure that grizzly bears are going to be here so that my grandkids years from now will be able to go out and see grizzly bears.”

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Delisting Grizzlies in Yellowstone