The Bush administration today will take the first step toward removing Yellowstone's grizzly bears, a living icon of the American West, from the nation's endangered species list.
The proposal to delist grizzly bears in the area surrounding Yellowstone National Park, a plan that has alarmed some environmentalists, highlights contrasting views of the 32-year-old Endangered Species Act. Proponents of the government's move say the grizzly's recovery marks a rare victory for the controversial law; others say the decision may undermine protections for a still-vulnerable group of animals.
If the administration drops the bears' current "threatened" status after a public comment period -- a move that would not take place until the end of 2006 at the earliest -- officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming would be free to allow limited hunting of grizzlies and would not have to maintain the same level of protection on the grizzlies' habitat. ("Threatened" is the less restrictive of the two categories of listings under the act.) The government would continue to monitor how state and federal authorities manage the land where the bears live, to ensure their survival.
Craig Manson, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the Interior Department, said the agency considers Yellowstone's grizzly population, which has rebounded from a low of about 200 in 1982 to more than 600 today, "recovered." Federal biologists have informed him that "adequate habitat and adequate habitat protections are in place" for the bears, he said.
"We know more about this population of grizzly bears than any population of grizzly bears anywhere," Manson said, adding that the department will monitor the animals' health for five years after the bears come off the list. "We're going to have an excellent picture of the health of this population well into the future."
But Louisa Wilcox, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council's wild bears project, said delisting would place the grizzlies' critical habitat in jeopardy. The bears range over nearly 9 million acres in and around the national park, she said, but the administration's proposal only covers a 6 million-acre habitat.
"We would love to see the grizzly bear delisted, but it's not ready," Wilcox said, adding that one-third of the bears' current habitat could be opened to drilling, logging and human development under the agency's plan. "If you want to protect bears for future generations, you have to protect the habitat they need. This plan doesn't do it."
If the administration takes Yellowstone's grizzlies off the list -- the public will have 90 days to comment on the proposal -- the grizzly will become the 18th endangered species to be declared recovered under the Endangered Species Act. Nine endangered species have gone extinct, and the government has delisted 13 species that were listed erroneously.
Yellowstone boasts the largest grizzly population in the lower 48 states, though there are a few smaller groups living in areas such as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem near Canada, Montana's Cabinet Yaak wilderness and Idaho's Selkirk Mountains. Grizzlies are thriving in Alaska, where more than 30,000 of them live.
No one questions that Yellowstone's grizzlies have rebounded over the past three decades since they were listed -- the population has been growing at a rate of 4 to 7 percent annually for several years -- in part because state and federal officials abolished trash dumps that used to lure bears and bring them into dangerous contact with humans.
But the recent revival also has sparked conflict with nearby residents as the bears venture out of the national park. Dominic Domenici, the Fish and Wildlife Service resident agent in charge of enforcement for Montana and Wyoming, said there "are more conflicts now between elk hunters and bears," in part because the whitebark pine seeds grizzlies need are in shorter supply now from a beetle infestation induced by warming climate.
Some environmentalists say the decline of the whitebark pine is yet another reason why the grizzlies should remain listed as threatened, as the seeds are closely linked to female bears' fecundity.
But National Wildlife Federation senior wildlife biologist Sterling Miller, who spent 21 years studying grizzlies in Alaska and now lives in Montana, said the time has come to take Yellowstone's bears off the list.
"You can't immunize them against everything bad that can possibly happen," Miller said. "That's a prescription for a permanent listing."
And John Emmerich, assistant wildlife division chief at Wyoming's Game and Fish Department, said environmentalists are not showing enough faith in state officials who have spent years and millions of dollars helping promote the bears' recovery. While the state plans to allow hunting "as a management tool," he added, officials would make sure it does not hurt the grizzly population, and hunting would not begin for at least a year.
"People will see in time the states will do a good job with delisting the grizzly bears," Emmerich said. "We're one of the primary reasons we've got a recovered population."