WASHINGTON (CN) - Citing decades of conservation work, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its plan to delist the Yellowstone grizzly due to recovery over the objections of environmentalists. The agency touts the recovery of the grizzlies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho over the last three decades from 136 bears in 1975 to an estimated 700 bears today as "one of America's great conservation successes," according to Thursday's announcement.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a petitioner on behalf of the bears, strongly disagrees, claiming the removal of Endangered Species Act protections will pave the way for state-supported trophy hunts.
"If and when a final delisting rule has been published and management of the Yellowstone grizzly bear has become the responsibility of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and the tribes, these states and tribes would then determine if and when hunting would begin," the agency admitted. However, the agency and states have agreed that hunting would stop, except for "discretionary mortality for human safety" once the population dipped below 600 bears, it said.
"The proposal to remove protections comes at a time when key grizzly bear food sources in the heart of the Yellowstone ecosystem have been collapsing and grizzly mortality rates have been increasing. The dramatic decline of whitebark pine and Yellowstone cutthroat trout has prompted bears to eat more meat, such as big-game gut piles and livestock, resulting in increased conflicts with humans and grizzly bear mortality. Drought and climate change are likely to exacerbate these problems," the CBD said in their response to the agency's announcement.
The USFWS maintains that its draft supplement to the bears' recovery plan and the draft conservation strategy to be released with the delisting proposal "in a couple of days" will ensure the health of the grizzly population into the future.
"Even with this proposed delisting, the Service remains committed to the conservation of the Yellowstone grizzly bear, and will stay engaged to ensure that this incredible species remains recovered," Service Director Dan Ashe said. "We will continue to be part of a strong monitoring program, implementation of the conservation strategy, and partnership with our state and federal partners."
The agency said that the bears have more than doubled their range since they were listed as a threatened species in 1975, and now inhabit over 22,500 square miles in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The population has been stable from 2002 to 2014 because it is at or near the area's carrying capacity, according to the agency.
The CBD maintains that overall the bears occupy less than 4 percent of their historic U.S. range, and notes that the isolation of the Yellowstone population is one of the threats to long term sustainability. "Yellowstone's bears have long been isolated from other bear populations, forcing the government to keep them on permanent life support by trucking bears in to avoid inbreeding. This fact further highlights the need for recovering grizzly bears in more places," the group said. The CBD petitioned the Service in December 2014 to reintroduce the grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem in central Idaho and western Montana to foster connection with other populations, the group said.
The agency notes that federal and state agencies monitor for potential natural connectivity between the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. "Grizzly bears are currently found approximately halfway between the NCDE and GYE areas and it is likely that these populations will connect in the near future through natural dispersal and movements. Approaches for increasing the likelihood of natural movement of grizzly bears and genetic interchange between the GYE and the NCDE populations, have been outlined in the Conservation Strategy," it said.
Noting that the estimated historical population of 50,000 grizzlies from Alaska to Mexico has been whittled down to an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 bears in five isolated populations in the northern Rocky Mountains and North Cascades, including the Yellowstone bears, the group vowed to keep the pressure on for maintaining federal protections for the bears. "It's simply too soon to remove protections for grizzly bears," Andrea Santarsiere, a CBD staff attorney, said. "We're prepared to make sure the Service follows the science and the law to ensure these wonderful animals can truly recover."
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