Wildlife: Secret talks open door for taking Northern Rockies grizzlies off the endangered species list

Wildlife activists gear up to fight proposal

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Grizzlies at play. Photo courtesy Kim Fense.

Staff Report

A classic wildlife conservation battle is shaping up in the northern Rockies, with conservation advocates lining up to challenge a state and federal plan to take grizzly bears off the Endangered Species List.

In a Sept. 25 letter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told state officials in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana that it plans to publish a delisting proposal by the end of the year.

But that move flies in the face of conservation science, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which in a press release expressed concern that the plan could lead to state-supported trophy hunts. The federal government is ignoring increasing bear mortality rates and a declining population, the Center said in a press release.

Via email, a USFWS spokesperson said the agency believes that recovery is based on more than just the number of bears in the ecosystem.

“It depends upon a combination of factors including quantity and quality of habitat, adequate regulatory mechanisms, and a good balance of male and female bears that are well-distributed throughout the ecosystem. 

 “We consider 600 bears to be the lower limit at which there is no management and discretionary mortality is no longer allowable. The goal would be to manage for approximately 674 grizzly bears to ensure a sustainable and resilient population that utilizes the entire available habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  We do not anticipate population numbers to dip down to 600 bears.

” No formal agreements have been made. Any proposal to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear would require a robust conservation plan and associated regulations for management of the bear post-delisting.  We continue to work with the states and partners on these issues.”

“It’s simply far too soon to remove protections for these grizzly bears,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Endangered Species Act has done a great job of helping to recover grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone, but isolation, declining food sources and an increase in human-caused mortality have caused the population to decrease from 757 to 714 bears just this year.”

The discussions between state and federal wildlife officials haven’t been open to the public, but a delisting proposal would be subject to public comment and review. But earlier this week, a copy of the letter from the USFWS to the states was leaked to WyoFile.

The letter shows that, while the estimated population of grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park is currently 714, the deal would allow the population to decline to as few as 600 bears. The letter states that hunting and other lethal removals of bears would generally be allowed, but will not be permitted unless necessary to address human safety issues if the population drops below 600 bears.

“Once again we see Director Ashe cutting deals for political expediency instead of following the science,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Endangered Species Act is incredibly effective at recovering imperiled species, and will do so for grizzlies across their range, but only if they retain protections until the science clearly demonstrates recovery.”

Grizzly bear numbers in the Greater Yellowstone area have improved since the animals were first protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, but the bears continue to be threatened by isolation from other grizzly populations, loss of key food sources and human-caused mortalities. Overall grizzly bears occupy less than 2 to 4 percent of their historic U.S. range.

“Recovery isn’t a math equation, it’s a geography question,” said Josh Osher, Montana Director for Western Watersheds Project.  “The states’ tentative agreement with the Service fails to ensure connectivity throughout the species’ range and fails to address the livestock operations that are the root cause of lethal conflict for the grizzly bear.”

Historically grizzly bears ranged from Alaska to Mexico, with an estimated 50,000 bears occupying the western half of the contiguous United States. With European settlement of the American West, grizzly bears were shot, poisoned and trapped to near extinction. Today just 1,500 to 1,800 grizzly bears are found in five isolated populations in the northern Rocky Mountains and North Cascades, including about 715 in the Yellowstone area.

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