By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A conservation group pushed U.S. wildlife managers on Wednesday to take steps to restore grizzly bears to western states such as California or be sued for failing to comply with provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
The outsized, hump-shouldered bruins were hunted, trapped and poisoned to the edge of extinction in the lower 48 states before being added to the federal endangered and threatened species list in 1975.
The Center for Biological Diversity argued in a formal petition submitted to the U.S. Interior Department that grizzlies should be restored to their native range in such places as California's Sierra Nevada and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
The areas, it said, still contain large tracts of undeveloped habitat favored by the bears.
"We've just begun the job of recovering grizzlies. There is so much more to do to see the bears restored to more of their range in the western United States," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service could not immediately be reached for comment. Under federal rules, it can accept or reject the petition.
An estimated 1,600 grizzlies roam Yellowstone National Park and its border states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The proposal by the Center for Biological Diversity would see as many as 6,000 grizzlies in the U.S. West, including parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
The petition was filed under an administrative component of the Endangered Species Act. It says expanses of rugged terrain in the Northern Rockies where grizzlies have been reestablished represent a small percentage of the predator's historic range, and just 22 percent of potentially suitable habitat in the continental United States.
The push by the Arizona-based group comes as government managers of grizzlies in and around Yellowstone claim that the population of more than 600 bears is sufficiently recovered and should be stripped of federal safeguards, opening the way for hunting outside the park.
The Center for Biological Diversity argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service is obligated under provisions of the nation's landmark conservation law to develop a recovery plan that ensures the restoration of grizzlies in ecosystems such as the Southern Rockies.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Jim Loney)