Federal wildlife officials recommended lifting protections for the Yellowstone region grizzly bears Thursday, saying the species is recovered and no longer threatened.
The long-awaited decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would remove the more than 700 Yellowstone-area grizzlies from the Endangered Species list and could pave the way for state-managed trophy hunting in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
USFWS director Dan Ashe called it a “proud moment” and said that it was the result of three decades of collaboration between state and federal agencies.
“This is a triumph for partnership-driven conservation,” Ashe said.
The proposal will be open for public comment. After that, there will be a final rule that could cede much of the management duties to state wildlife agencies.
“State partners are ready to take the leadership in guiding grizzly recovery,” Ashe said.
This is the second time in the last decade that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to remove those protections for the bear. The first time was in 2007, when they were promptly sued by environmental groups who argued they hadn’t adequately analyzed declines in certain food sources caused by climate change.
A federal judge agreed, and protections were restored in 2009.
Grizzlies once roamed much of North America, but trapping and hunting extirpated them from much of their range. The bear was first listed as a threatened species in the lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, when the Yellowstone population was estimated at 136.
The most recent count said there were at least 717 bears in the region, though some estimates say there could be as many as 1,000. The population grew for years but leveled off in the early 2000s, which USFWS says shows the region is at its carrying capacity.
Ashe said that in addition to the significant growth in population number, the bears have expanded into new habitat and adjusted to changes in their food sources, like the decline in the amount of white bark pine available. Grizzly researchers have said that grizzlies have turned to other food sources in the face of the white bark pine decline, like meat.
But some grizzly advocates worry the increased reliance on meat will lead to more human-bear conflicts, and thus more bears being killed. In 2015, 59 were killed, an all-time high.
Ashe said human-bear conflicts are a concern, but that the strategy is “designed to strictly limit mortality.”
The USFWS’ proposed rule would cap the number of bears that could be killed within a 19,279-square-mile monitoring area, which includes Yellowstone National Park.
When the population is 600 bears or fewer, no killing would be allowed. Between 600 and 673, mortality would have to be less than 7.6 percent of adult females, less than 7.6 of young bears and less than 15 percent of males. At a population of 674 bears, those limits would stay the same.
With a population between 675 and 747, killing limits would go to 9 percent for adult females and young and 20 percent for adult males. Above 747, the numbers would change to 10 percent for females and young and 22 percent for males.
The states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho will divvy up the amount of killing each state is allowed to have within the monitoring area. According to a draft of an agreement between the states, Wyoming would get 58 percent, Montana 34 percent and Idaho 8 percent. That agreement has yet to be finalized.
State officials praised the USFWS decision Thursday. Ron Aasheim, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the Endangered Species Act is meant to recover animals in trouble, and that in this case, “the goal has been achieved.”
Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement that the proposal was “welcome news,” and that he was excited the state will have more authority to manage the animals, though he added that continued work would be required.
“As we celebrate the successful return of a healthy grizzly bear population across the Yellowstone ecosystem, we must continue to focus on protecting the critical habitat that made this proposal possible. Montanans should be in charge of managing our wildlife for the betterment of the state,” Bullock said.
The Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation also praised the decision. U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke said in a statement that the state knows better “what to do with the grizzly bears and the population.” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines echoed Zinke in a statement, adding that he would urge USFWS to “reconsider the listing of the other populations of grizzly bears across our state.”
On the other hand, some environmental groups said the decision had come too soon. Sylvia Fallon, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a news release that grizzlies still face threats like being isolated from other grizzly populations, increasing human conflict and the decline in white bark pine, an important food source.
“Given all of the uncertainty facing the Yellowstone grizzly, we do not think it is time to declare victory for these bears just yet,” Fallon said.
Andrea Santarsiere, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release that the group would be following what the USFWS does in the coming months to make sure grizzlies aren’t harmed by this decision.
“We’re prepared to make sure the service follows the science and the law to ensure these wonderful animals can truly recover,” Santarsiere said.
The Montana Wildlife Federation praised the conservation success of restoring the grizzly, but also said it was important that the states ensure bears can expand their habitat and continue to grow.
“Removing a species from the Endangered Species list is not the end of the process; it’s just the beginning,” MWF’s executive director Dave Chadwick said in a news release.
Public comment on the proposed rule and the conservation strategy will be open for 60 days once they are published in the federal register. Two public meetings on the subject will also be held, one in Cody, Wyoming, on April 11, and another in Bozeman on April 12.
After that, USFWS will analyze the input and issue a final decision.