Yellowstone Grizzly Bear to Lose Endangered Species Protection

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["The protection of endangered species is highly political, especially in the West. Republicans have made numerous proposals to change the law." *RON*]

Jim Robbins, New York Times, 22 June 2017

A grizzly bear in Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Credit Jim Urquhart/Reuters
HELENA, Mont. — After 42 years on the endangered species list, the Yellowstone grizzly bear — whose numbers have grown to more than 700 from fewer than 150 — will lose its protected status, the Interior Department announced on Thursday.

The move has long been debated, despite the bear’s increasing population in areas where it had not been seen in decades. The Fish and Wildlife Service tried to delist the bear in 2007 but was ordered by federal court decisions to reconsider because of a decline in white bark pine, an important bear food source decimated by insects as the region’s temperatures have risen.

In deciding to lift the protection, Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior, remarked on the long-term efforts that have allowed the bear to thrive: “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners,” Mr. Zinke said in a statement. “As a Montanan, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together.”

The action will not affect the protected status of the other major population of grizzlies in the lower 48 states, those that live in and around Glacier National Park of Montana, which number about 1,000. However, experts say this population, too, could soon be delisted. Several small, isolated populations would remain protected.

The rule to remove the Yellowstone bear from the endangered list will be published in the Federal Register in the near future and take effect 30 days after that. Conservation groups have already threatened to contest the rule in court.

The protection of endangered species is highly political, especially in the West. Republicans have made numerous proposals to change the law; one bill, introduced by Senator Rand Paul, would require congressional approval to add a species to the list and would delist a species after five years of protection. It would also mandate that a state manage a species that lives entirely within its borders — not the federal government.

A grizzly bear and two cubs near a bison carcass in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Bears that stay within the park will not be hunted. CreditJim Urquhart/Reuters
Under current law, eliminating threatened species protection for the big bear paves the way for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to take over responsibility from federal managers outside Yellowstone. That means fewer restrictions; states alone will make the call on dealing with nuisance bears — and will probably include a hunting season for grizzlies. Bears within the boundaries of the national park will remain a federal responsibility and will not be hunted, unless they leave Yellowstone.

Delisting the bear, or Ursus arctos horribilis, is opposed by a number of conservation groups and Native American tribes that say climate change has cast the Yellowstone region into ecological uncertainty and could imperil the bear in the future.

“We have to wait 60 days, but on the 61st day we will sue to stop the delisting,” said Matt Bishop, of the Western Environmental Law Center, a Montana-based nonprofit that intervenes on behalf of conservation groups, referring to the waiting period for filing a lawsuit.

Native Americans also consider the bear sacred. Dozens of Native American tribes, tribal associations and others from the United States and Canada have signed the Grizzly Treaty to oppose the delisting, saying the government failed to consult them. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe is “one of the Associated Tribes of Yellowstone, and yet we were completely ignored in this delisting process, despite our declaration, our resolution and petition for inclusion,” said Brandon Sazue, the tribe’s chairman.

Christina Meister, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said agency officials had met numerous times with tribes on this issue during the delisting process.

Opponents argue that Yellowstone is an island population of bears, cut off from others, and potentially without enough genetic diversity to adapt to a changing environment.

But proponents of relaxing protections say the big bears are adaptable, once thriving from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as Minnesota. As for concerns that climate change could spur further declines in food sources, Yellowstone bears make use of some 265 different food sources, from the roots of tiny wildflowers, to moths and ladybugs to elk.

“It’s recovered under any metric we look at,” said Tom France, regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, Mont. “We should consider it a great success.”

Protecting the grizzly bear, which was one of the first on the list of endangered species under the 1973 law, has been a challenge. Adult males can weigh as much as 700 pounds, and the bears occasionally attack and kill people. The bears also have a very low birthrate. Sows have their first cubs at five to eight years of age. Just one in three cubs survives to adulthood, living an average of 30 years.

The Yellowstone population has rebounded mainly because of a practice of removing the association between people and food, so the bears stay wild. The days of bears stealing picnic baskets, once a very real phenomenon, have been stamped out. Trash in and around the park, and in campsites, is required to be kept in bear-proof containers or in vehicles. Food-conditioned bears often have to be removed from the population.

Technology has also played a role. Some 10 percent of grizzlies wear GPS collars that record their location as often as every hour and remotely download that data to a computer overhead in an airplane. A single hair can provide information about a bear’s diet over the past six months, leaving few secrets about the bear’s needs in terms of habitat.

A delisting, if borne out after lawsuits are settled, does not mean the federal government will be completely divorced from dealing with the bears. State management would be monitored for five years afterward, and if numbers fall below 600, special rules kick in to reduce hunting and other deaths.

The prospect of hunting grizzly bears for sport is exciting for some, but disturbing to others. Research since 1975 has shown that the animals in general are far smarter than we thought.

“Each bear is an individual,” said Kerry Gunther, a bear biologist with the park. “They are highly intelligent.”

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