Government’s Move to End Grizzly Protections Sparks Opposition

Environmental and Native American groups fear delisting the Yellowstone population would invite trophy hunting and hinder the recovery of bears elsewhere.
A grizzly bear roams through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
Mar 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Environmental and Native American groups have criticized plans to end endangered species protections for the grizzly bears of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

With a steady population of around 700, up from barely 130 when the top predator was protected in 1975, “the recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly bear represents a historic success” for wildlife conservation, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe in a statement on Thursday. “We will continue to be part of a strong monitoring program, implementation of the conservation strategy, and partnership with our state and federal partners.”

The stable number of grizzlies in the region shows that “the Yellowstone ecosystem is at or near its carrying capacity for the bears,” the wildlife service declared in a statement.

The announcement kicked off a two-month period for public and scientific comment on the service’s draft plans for delisting and continued monitoring of the population.

“Even with this proposed delisting, the service remains committed to the conservation of the Yellowstone grizzly bear and will stay engaged to ensure that this incredible species remains recovered,” the statement read.

Despite rebounding in the Yellowstone ecosystem, grizzly bears have reinhabited only 2 to 4 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states and total less than 2,000 animals. This delisting proposal would not affect grizzly bear populations in other areas.

Still, said Andrea Santarsiere, an Idaho-based staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, delisting the Yellowstone grizzly would allow states to legalize trophy hunting of the population in areas outside a “demographic monitoring area” around Yellowstone National Park.

“That is problematic because the bears going outside the area are arguably the most important bears,” she said. “They’re the ones that are the most likely to connect with other populations and increase the genetic diversity of the Yellowstone grizzlies.”

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“We would really prefer that the Fish and Wildlife Service, rather than taking this piecemeal approach to recover bears in smaller geographic areas, would take a big-picture approach to grizzly bear recovery,” said Santarsiere, noting that a federal court ruled against a similar strategy when it blocked delisting the Great Lakes population of endangered gray wolves in 2015.

“But instead they’re using their time and funding to try and remove protections for this population,” she added.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement that it was too soon “to declare victory” for “an isolated population that is experiencing high levels of conflicts with people and is likely declining in the wake of the loss of whitebark pine, a critically important food source.”

A coalition of nearly 50 Native American tribes continues to oppose the end of federal endangered species protection for the Yellowstone grizzlies. The group, Guardians of our Ancestors’ Legacy, fears that delisting the population will lead to new slaughter of a wild animal central to their cultural and spiritual heritage.

“I respectfully remind all of you that the grizzly bear has a spiritual purpose, which is to watch over the future and our future generations,” Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Lakota Nation, said in a statement. “If the grizzly is delisted, you will witness a 2-million-acre land grab by energy and mining companies, livestock interests, and timber operations.”