Yesterday, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that the Yellowstone grizzly bear will be taken off the endangered species next month, reports Jim Robbins at the New York Times. The bear was first placed on the endangered species list in 1975, when there were an estimated 136 creatures left in greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Now, that population has climbed to about 700 bears—with about 150 living in Yellowstone National Park itself.
Though the Yellowstone grizzly is not a distinct species or subspecies of grizzly bear, the Interior Department manages the creatures as a distinct population living in northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho. Other grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48 will continue to be protected by the Endangered Species Act, including a population of about 1,000 that live in and around Montana’s Glacier National Park.
According to Robbins, while the bears living in Yellowstone National Park will continue to be federally protected, the de-listing means bears living or wandering outside Yellowstone will likely be managed by the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Local governments will be responsible for determining how to handle problem bears and will have the option of opening up a hunting season for grizzlies. But the federal government would continue to monitor the state management for five years, and if the number of bears drops below 600, special rules would activate to reduce hunting.
Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, touted the de-listing as a success. “As a kid who grew up in Montana, I can tell you that this is a long time coming and very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region,” he says in a statement. “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of the state, tribal, federal and private partners.”
Environmental groups, however, have vowed to sue to stop the de-listing and local Native American Tribes also object to the move. “Grizzly bears are the slowest reproducing mammal on the planet, and a population decline can take decades to reverse,” Endangered Species Coalition field representative Derek Goldman tells Colin Dwyer at NPR. “Therefore we have been calling on Fish and Wildlife Service and the states to develop adequate management plans for grizzly bears before any de-listing is finalized.”
This is not the first time the move has been attempted. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed de-listing the Yellowstone grizzly. But a massive batch of 650,000 public comments led to a delay in the decision, reports Karen Brulliard at The Washington Post. The FWS also proposed the bear for de-listing in 2007 reports Robbins, but that plan was halted by a court over concerns that insects were destroying white bark pine in the region, a major food source for the bears.
Chris Servheen, FWS’s former grizzly bear recovery coordinator who managed the program for 35 years, tells Brulliard the bears are resilient enough to survive de-listing and that they could still thrive under a well-managed hunting program. But he believes the population should stay about the size it is now to remain ecologically viable. But he adds, “a managed population decline post-delisting is not biologically defensible. We didn’t recover them to drive the population down.”
The number of Yellowstone bears has hit a plateau since the early 2000s, something many land managers and researchers see as a sign that the ecosystem has reached its carrying capacity for bears. But others think the opposite, that the bears are in trouble.
As Luke Whelan at Wired reports, droughts and habitat destruction have impacted four major food sources for the bears—whitebark pine seed, army cutworm moths, elk and cutthroat trout—potentially reducing the ecosystem's carrying capacity for bears. Without ESA protections, many worry that more logging, mining and road construction would further reduce or fragment grizzly habitat in Yellowstone's ecosystem.