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Yellowstone Grizzlies: Threatened or Not?

On November 15, 2005, Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was taking steps to remove the Yellowstone grizzly population from protection under the Endangered Species Act. "More than 600 grizzlies now inhabit the Yellowstone ecosystem and the population is no longer threatened," Norton said. "We are confident that the future of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone is bright."

Chris Servheen, the Montana-based coordinator of grizzly recovery efforts for the service, agrees. "This is one of the greatest success stories in the history of the Endangered Species Act," he says.

While Norton and Servheen herald the proposed delisting as a milestone on the Yellowstone grizzly's road to recovery -- the bear has been listed as threatened since 1975 -- others aren't so sure. A number of scientists and environmental leaders say the Yellowstone population isn't ready to sustain itself without federal protection.

"The delisting plan won't ensure grizzly recovery, and there's a good chance it will reduce the population we already have," says Lance Craighead, executive director of the Craighead Environmental Research Institute. In early 2006, Craighead and more than 100 other scientists signed an open letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service opposing the delisting. They argued that an isolated population of 500 to 600 bears wasn't enough to survive potential shocks such as the loss of a key food source. The bear population should be at least 2,000 before delisting, they said.

A final decision is expected from the Fish and Wildlife Service in early 2007. If the Yellowstone grizzly loses its threatened status, protection of the bear will be turned over to state wildlife agencies. Some grizzly advocates say that could prove disastrous. Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming plan to manage the grizzly as a game animal, which includes hunting. "That would be like taking patients in an emergency room and stabbing them a few more times," says Doug Honnold, an attorney for Earthjustice who has worked on grizzly issues for 20 years.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is now evaluating the states' management plans and considering thousands of public comments as it shapes its decision. The wild card in all this is Wyoming, which has a history of animosity toward predators like the grizzly and the gray wolf. The state's gray wolf management plan, which some critics characterized as "aim and shoot," was rejected by federal officials in early 2004. Court battles over that rejection continue to delay the delisting of the wolf. Wyoming's grizzly management plan would cap the population at its current level, relying largely on hunting to keep those numbers in check. "The bear originally went on the list because states like Wyoming overhunted them," says Craighead. "And things haven't changed all that much since then."

image of Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction and is the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. He writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment for such... READ MORE >