Grizzlies May Lose Endangered Status
Bears Have Roared Back Since the 1970s
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page A03
GARDINER, Mont. -- For 23 years, Chris Servheen has devoted himself to saving the grizzly bear from dying out in the American West. Now, he's ready to declare victory.
Servheen, a hardy outdoorsman with a handlebar mustache and drawn features, is the coordinator of grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And he, with other federal officials, is making plans to take bears off the endangered species list, where they have been listed as threatened since 1975.
By that year, the number of grizzlies in the lower 48 states had plummeted to between 200 and 250. As the bears were pressured by hunters and they lost their habitat to ranching and development, their numbers had dropped precipitously from the early 19th century, when as many as 50,000 roamed the West, ranging as far south as Mexico.
Since they came under strict federal protection, the number of grizzlies in the lower 48 states has bounced back to between 1,200 and 1,400, along with 35,000 in Alaska, where the grizzly has never been listed as threatened. The largest concentration -- 550 to 600 -- is in Yellowstone National Park, with the remainder scattered across northern Montana, northern Idaho and northern Washington.
In sharp contrast to the pending plan to take bald eagles off the endangered species list, the proposal to de-list grizzly bears is a controversial one. Most government experts argue that it is time to abandon some of the protections. Their position is echoed by many stock growers and politicians, who insist they need more flexibility in dealing with the threat that the massive bears, the largest meat-eating animals in the lower 48 states, pose to livestock and humans.
But some environmentalists and scientists remain skeptical, arguing that the move could jeopardize the bears' fragile position in what remains of their western habitat, most of it in national parks.
That federal officials are even considering de-listing is testimony to the bears' resurgence. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the government has de-listed 39 species in the 50 states since it created the list in 1973 under the Endangered Species Act. Of these nine went extinct, 15 recovered and 15 came off for technical reasons. About 1,300 species, including some in the U.S. trust territories, remain on it. The listing includes threatened species, such as the grizzlies, and endangered ones that are in greater jeopardy of going extinct.
In contrast to the argument over grizzlies, the Bush administration's recent decision to take the bald eagle off the list by the end of this year is supported by most environmentalists in light of the birds' dramatic resurgence to more than 7,500 nesting pairs reported nationwide.
The grizzly bears' comeback is far less dramatic, but Servheen said "we've come a long way."
This kind of talk worries Louisa Wilcox, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's wild bear project. Wilcox, who has worked on grizzly conservation since 1985, said federal officials are ignoring the pressures the bears still face.
"De-listing is really about taking chances," Wilcox said. "We believe de-listing is premature unless and until habitat's protected so bears can be established as a connected population between Yellowstone and Canada. . . . The challenge bears face today is pressure from people, oil and gas development, rural sprawl, and burgeoning off-road vehicle use."
With their mammoth size -- they tend to be 500 to 600 pounds in the Rocky Mountains -- and their tendency to raid campers' food supplies and pounce on local livestock, grizzly bears do not always evoke sympathy. Occasionally they launch brutal attacks on humans, such as the dismemberment of Alaskan bear expert Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in October by a hulking grizzly known as "The Big Red Machine."
"We need the laws to protect these bears and we need the political climate to protect these bears," said Douglas Honnold, managing attorney for the Bozeman, Mont., office of Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. Honnold added that many local officials and livestock owners in the West have the attitude that "we don't want your bears and we don't want your wolves" and are eager to kill grizzly bears that wander outside Yellowstone and other parks.
Ranchers say they are increasingly frustrated with the toll that grizzly bears take on their cattle. According to Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, bears cost the state's livestock industry $57,000 in fiscal 2003, killing a total of 29 sheep, 92 calves, 11 cows and one bull.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Grizzly bears roam in Yellowstone National Park, which has the largest concentration -- 550 to 600 -- in the continental United States.