Breaking news: federal officials have brought up the possibility of delisting Yellowstone grizzly bears by this time next year. If not sooner.
According to the Associated Press, via The Billings Gazette, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced its intent to lift threatened-species protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears, which opens the possibility of trophy hunting in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
Today’s announcement comes months after the USFWS director divulged in a letter to state wildlife managers his agency’s intent to delist Yellowstone grizzlies in the near future. It also comes after months of debate and discussions among proponents and opponents of the measure, who range from wildlife biologists to Native American tribes to the Endangered Species Coalition. From the Gazette:
“By the time the curtain closes on the Obama administration, we are on track to have delisted more species due to recovery than all previous administrations combined,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told the AP. “We’ve done that because of several decades of hard work, like with the grizzly bear.”
Grizzlies once roamed much of North America and came to symbolize the continent’s untamed wilderness. Hunters and trappers had nearly wiped them out across most of the Lower 48 states by the late 1800s.
A final decision on the proposal is due within a year. It could come sooner if state wildlife commissioners act quickly to adopt rules on how much hunting is allowed. Those rules are not mandatory under the federal proposal, federal officials said.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock told the AP that the bear population would be responsibly managed by state wildlife officials. The Democrat said if a public hunt for the animals is pursued, it could be done in a way that avoids killing bears that live on the periphery of Yellowstone National Park.
“Yellowstone wildlife is treasured. We understand that. We’ll manage them in a way that addresses that sensitivity,” Bullock said.
Protections would remain in place for about 1,000 bears in and around Glacier National Park and smaller populations elsewhere in Montana, Idaho and Washington state. Grizzlies are not protected in Alaska, where hunting has long been allowed.
Since grizzlies in the Lower 48 were added to the endangered and threatened species list in 1975, the number in the Yellowstone region increased from 136 animals to an estimated 700 to 1,000 today, according to government researchers.
The Gazette further notes that over the years, the Yellowstone grizzly bear has become somewhat emblematic of both the aims of the Endangered Species Act (bringing wildlife from the brink of extinction/threatened existence in the wild) and its limits, according to detractors, who feel species shouldn’t “linger” under protection.
Although there is no exact timeline for a Yellowstone grizzly bear delisting decision, as noted in the Gazette, it could come sooner depending on how state agencies rule. In our opinion, we expect it will come pretty quickly, as wildlife agencies in all three Yellowstone states reportedly started divvying up population percentages for a Yellowstone grizzly bear hunting plan back in January.
As the Gazette notes, however, it’s likely the decision to delist Yellowstone grizzly bears would be challenged in court. There’s a precedent; Yellowstone grizzly bears were previously delisted in 2007 but later relisted in 2009.
And even if the bear is delisted and state agencies institute a hunt, it wouldn’t be a free-for-all. As previously noted when the news broke in September, the USFWS’ plan currently calls for a 600 bear limit, meaning hunting would be banned should the population drop at or below that limit.
UPDATE: The Natural Resource Defense Council has released a statement regarding the USFWS decision to delist Yellowstone grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act. It incorporates text from a blog post by NRDC senior scientist Sylvia Fallon, which you can read in full here. From Fallon and the NRDC:
“Given all of the uncertainty facing the Yellowstone grizzly, we do not think it is time to declare victory for these bears just yet. Yellowstone grizzly bears are 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.
“The Endangered Species Act has been tremendously successful at saving this population and preventing its demise. And retaining those valuable protections until the Yellowstone grizzly population is more robust and its future more certain is the best way to turn that past success into true recovery.”