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Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears Could Be Left Unprotected

A sow with two two-year old cubs in Denali National Park.

CREDIT: Flickr user Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed removing Endangered Species Act protections from the grizzly bear in and around Yellowstone National Park, calling bear recovery efforts a “historic success.”

The estimated number of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region is now approximately 700. There were just 136 in 1975 when they were officially listed as a threatened species. At the time, grizzly bears had been hunted into dwindling numbers. Removing current protections would allow hunters to kill bears outside of the park.

The region includes parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Hunters and ranchers make up a significant political constituency in these states, and have argued that grizzly bears’ increasing numbers pose a threat to human, livestock, and game animals.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the bear’s range has more than doubled over the past forty years, and that the number of bears in the region has remained essentially constant since 2002. According to the agency, this is a sign that “the Yellowstone ecosystem is at or near its carrying capacity for bears.”

Matt Hogan, the agency’s deputy regional director, believes that the current scope of the bears’ habitat and the bears’ existing male-female ratio will allow the region to maintain a long-term grizzly population between the high-600s and low-700s.

However, environmental groups say that this move threatens bears, who are also at risk due to climate change. According to Tim Preso, a lawyer with environmental law firm Earthjustice, the bears’ increasing range can be partially attributed to declining whitebark pine. This forces bears to travel farther for food.

The proposed delisting from the Endangered Species list would not apply to bears in other areas of the west. However, because the Yellowstone area hosts approximately half of the 1,400 to 1,700 grizzlies in the Lower 48 states, the delisting could have a significant impact on the grizzly bear’s overall population.

After the plan undergoes a formal period of public review, a final decision will be made by the year’s end. For lawyer Tim Preso, this review period will test whether the public is willing to defend the grizzlies.

“I guess there’s going to be a question of how comfortable the American public is with the killing off of more than 100 grizzly bears,” he said.

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