LIVINGSTON, Mt.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans on Wednesday to strip Endangered Species Act protections from Yellowstone’s iconic grizzly bears later this year. The agency will release a proposed rule removing federal protections for the bears by the end of this year, and following a public-comment period will make a final decision, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Service. The move, announced at a meeting of grizzly bear managers in Jackson, Wyo., responds to a major push by Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to take over management of bears and enact sport hunts, much as they have with wolves.
“The science is clear — it’s simply way too soon to pull the plug on grizzly bear recovery,” said Louisa Willcox, a longtime advocate for grizzly bears and Northern Rockies representative of the Center for Biological Diversity. “With the lowest reproductive rate of any North American mammal, vanishing food sources and increased human-caused mortality, Yellowstone’s bears can’t withstand hunts led by states that are openly hostile to our few remaining large carnivores.”
The proposal 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 increases rates of conflict with humans and grizzly bear mortality. Drought and climate change will exacerbate these problems.
A 2009 interagency report recommended more than 70 ways to reduce conflicts, including requiring hunters to carry bear pepper spray, which is proven to be much more effective than a gun in repelling a charging bear. Other recommendations included improved grazing practices, rapid removal of hunted big game from the field and increased law enforcement.
“Unfortunately the government did not incorporate these recommendations in their policies and practices,” said Willcox. “Instead of delisting grizzlies, the government should take these practical steps to reduce conflicts and the high levels of grizzly bear mortality since 2007. It’s clear that current efforts to educate the public on how to avoid conflicts are not working.”
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 highlights the fact that, as a result of excessive killing and habitat destruction, grizzly bears occupy only about 1 percent of their former range in the lower 48 states. And in five of the seven remaining grizzly bear recovery zones, bears have either been exterminated or are perilously close to extinction.
“Without the protection of the Endangered Species Act, grizzly bears would not likely have survived in Yellowstone,” said Willcox, “and with the unraveling of their ecosystem, there’s no doubt they still need the federal safety net in the years to come.”
A new federal study suggests the grizzly population may have been declining by an average of 4 percent per year since 2008. A second independent analysis found that the agency’s population estimate for bears may be based on flawed assumptions that inflated total population numbers.
“The feds are bending to political pressure from the states rather than providing grizzly bears the additional breathing room they need to compensate for climate change and the loss of key foods,” said Willcox. “Now is not the time for the feds to walk away from Yellowstone grizzly bears and leave their fate up to three states that want to hunt them instead of save them from extinction.”
Grizzly bears are especially important as a measure of the health of the lands where they live. Where grizzly bears are healthy, so are an array of other species, from bighorn sheep to raptors.