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Yellowstone Grizzly Bears May Come Off Endangered List

WASHINGTON, DC, November 16, 2005 (ENS) - The greater Yellowstone population of grizzly bears has recovered and no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said today, announcing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove the Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of threatened and endangered species.

Four other grizzly populations in the lower 48 states have not yet recovered and will continue to be protected as threatened species under the Act, Norton said.

Once at least 50,000 grizzly bears, Ursus arctos horribilis, roamed the West, but they were driven nearly to extinction 30 years ago, and, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, just 136 individuals were still alive when the species was listed in 1975.

The bears' survival was jeopardized by loss of habitat and high mortality from conflict with humans. Norton says cooperation, consultation and communication among numerous federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, local governments and citizens have reversed the trend.

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A pair of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone area (Photo by Chris Servheen courtesy USFWS)
"When it was listed in 1975, this majestic animal that greeted Lewis and Clark on their historic expedition stood at risk of disappearing from the American West," Norton said. "Thanks to the work of many partners, more than 600 grizzlies now inhabit the Yellowstone ecosystem and the population is no longer threatened."

Since the mid-1990s, the Yellowstone population has grown at a rate of four to seven percent per year. Grizzlies have occupied 48 percent more habitat since they were listed, and biologists have sighted bears more than 60 miles from what was once thought to be the outer limits of their range.

But some conservationists say the federal proposal would allow the bears to be hunted, and throw open protected habitat to large-scale real estate and energy development.

"Federal protection is the only reason these bears exist in Yellowstone today, and they arenít yet ready to survive without it," said Louisa Willcox, director of the Natural Resources Defense Councilís Wild Bears Project. "It is a tremendous success story, but the last chapters aren't yet written. We want to make sure there is a happy ending for both the grizzlies and the communities of greater Yellowstone."

Willcox said land that is inhabited by the bears is being chipped away by development, oil and gas drilling, logging and road building. Delisting grizzlies would loosen restrictions on all those activities, accelerating the loss of habitat and increasing the likelihood of bear-human conflict.

"We would love to see grizzlies taken off the Endangered Species list - when theyíre ready," said Willcox. "But that canít happen if the laws protecting grizzlies are weakened, and if they lose the few remaining scraps of land that support them. When those scraps are gone, neither the bears nor the wild land will be there for future generations."

But Secretary Norton says grizzly bear recovery scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, the state wildlife agencies in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and several universities have developed protocols and techniques to monitor grizzly bear populations and habitat and to document the conservation status of the bears.

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Wide-ranging large carnivores such as grizzly bears are particularly vulnerable to death on the road. (Photo by Chuck Bartlebaugh courtesy Center for Wildlife Information)
In 1983, these agencies formed the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, also including the state of Washington, the Bureau of Land Management, province of British Columbia and the province of Alberta.

This team has developed a conservation strategy for future management of the Yellowstone population and its habitat should the species be delisted, Norton said.

The strategy incorporates the best available science and establishes an adaptive management framework that allows the Service and its partners to adjust management guidelines in response to new scientific information and/or environmental and population changes. Norton says state and federal managers will continue to work under this framework to manage and maintain healthy grizzly bear populations throughout the Greater Yellowstone area into the foreseeable future.

"With a comprehensive conservation strategy ready to be put into place upon delisting, we are confident that the future of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone is bright," Norton said. "Our grandchildrenís grandchildren will see grizzly bears roaming Yellowstone."

Other conservationists, such as the National Wildlife Federation, support the proposal to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of species requiring the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

"Yellowstone grizzly bear recovery is the best kind of proof that those in Congress who say the Endangered Species Act doesnít work are wrong," said Jim Lyon, National Wildlife Federation senior vice president for conservation programs. "The nationís safety net for imperiled wildlife works and the American people want it to stay that way."

"The Endangered Species Act has achieved another major success with the recovery of Yellowstone grizzly bears," said Tom France, director of the National Wildlife Federationís Northern Rockies Natural Resource Center. "All of the recovery goals for grizzly bears in Yellowstone have been met or exceeded," he continued, referring to population, distribution and mortality goals established for grizzly bear recovery.

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Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone area now number around 580 to 600 animals. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
The Fish and Wildlife Service plan calls for returning grizzly bear management in the Yellowstone area that includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and surrounding National Forest lands to the governments of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The National Wildlife Federation was instrumental in convening a governorsí round table in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho in a process that has produced state plans for grizzly bear management that France termed "commendable."

But the Natural Resources Defense Council warns that the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho all have plans to allow grizzly hunting when the bears are delisted.

As it is, many bears already are killed by poachers, and Willcox said legal hunting would only make matters worse. "Many officials in the state of Wyoming are openly hostile toward grizzlies, and four counties have passed resolutions prohibiting the bears within their borders," she said.

"Weíre afraid that delisting would result in open season on any grizzlies that wander outside the park," said Willcox. "Grizzly bears donít read maps."

But local wildlife organizations disagree. "The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the other state agencies have contributed greatly to the recovery effort so far," said Mark Winland, president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. "We are confident they will continue to do so following delisting."

"The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been a leader in developing programs to minimize conflicts between grizzlies and people," said Chris Marchion, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. "These efforts, coupled with education, are they key to a solid grizzly bear management program."

The National Wildlife Federation says the bears are ready to make it on their own. "A key Endangered Species Act objective is to achieve self-sustaining populations in the wild," said Steve Torbit, director of the National Wildlife Federationís Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center in Denver. "That objective has been achieved in Yellowstone."

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Map of grizzly bear populations. The Greater Yellowstone population proposed for delisting is number 6. (Map courtesy Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee/Center for Wildlife Information)
Grizzly bears are larger and heavier than other bears. They can be distinguished from black bears by longer, curved claws, humped shoulders and a face that appears concave. A wide range of coloration from light brown to nearly black is common. The bearís coat features longer guard hairs over a dense mat of underfur whose tips lighten as the bear ages - prompting the name "grizzly."

In the lower 48 states, the average weight of grizzly bears is generally 400 to 600 pounds for males and 250 to 350 pounds for females. Grizzlies eat living or dead mammals or fish, grasses, roots, bulbs, tubers and fungi and can live to be around 25 years old.

Biologists believe the Yellowstone area grizzly population and other remaining grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states and Canada are separate from each other, with no evidence of interaction.

The proposal to delist the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday. The proposal and more information about todayís announcement can be found at http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/mammals/grizzly/2yellowstone.htm

The public can submit comments on the proposal to: Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University Hall 309, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812. Comments can also be sent by electronic mail to FW6_grizzly_yellowstone@fws.gov. All comments must be received by February 15, 2006.



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