By GARY GERHARDT
Scripps Howard News Service
July 29, 2005
Positioned as the "summit" species in the North American food chain, grizzlies fear no other animal.
Human fascination with the grizzly bear is such that when spotted even at a distance in Yellowstone National Park, the bear is guaranteed to bring traffic to a screeching halt and create a massive jam.
But it has not always been so.
Once viewed as a major menace to livestock, so many grizzlies were hunted, trapped and poisoned that, by 1975, no more than 225 of the beasts remained in Yellowstone.
The grizzly was one of the first species enrolled on the Endangered Species List, counted as a "threatened species."
For the past 30 years, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team has been trapping, radio-collaring and studying hundreds of the great bears throughout the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem as their number increased.
Their work is evaluated by a committee made up of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey Biological Resources, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana fish and game departments, and Montana State University.
With more than 600 grizzlies now in the Yellowstone ecosystem, the committee believes it's time to declare the recovery a success and remove the great bear from Endangered Species protection.
The possibility of eliminating protections for Ursus arctos horribilis in Yellowstone is causing some conservation groups to break out in a cold sweat while others are saying, "It's about time."
Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service for a quarter of a century, said if the proposal is approved in Washington, it will go out for public comment before a final decision. Actual removal of the bear from the Endangered Species List, if warranted, won't happen this year.
Yellowstone is one of six recovery areas for bears in the Northwest. It is unique in that it is isolated by 100 miles from any of the others or from Canada.
From the time of listing, the interagency team has radio-collared and monitored bears to track cub production, mortality causes, habitat destruction and fluctuations in primary foods that include army cutworms, trout and carion.
"Today, we're seeing bears in places we never saw them before," Servheen said, "in huge areas of the entire 13-million-acre ecosystem where there were no bears."
Even so, some conservationists argue that simply considering numbers alone isn't a guarantee of survival without protections.
The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council vociferously opposes removing protections.
Among their fears if endangered status is removed:
- Last year, 19 bears died, mostly hit by cars, shot in self-defense by hunters or killed to keep them away from livestock, and it could get worse.
- Oil and gas exploration will encroach on prime grizzly habitat in national forests surrounding Yellowstone.
- Housing sprawl will compromise crucial grizzly habitat on private land near Yellowstone.
- The bears are suffering from a lack of native cutthroat trout.
- Logging and road building will degrade important grizzly habitat.
One-third of the bears live outside the grizzly recovery zone around the park, said Craig Noble, a spokesman for the Resource Defense Council.
"With protection, anyone who wants to alter the area has to demonstrate it won't hurt the bear, but delisting 'lowers the bar' on what can be done in occupied grizzly habitat and diminishes chances to establish linkages to other grizzly populations to ensure genetic diversity."
Linkages are corridors that animals use to migrate from one area to another.
Brian Peck of the Great Bear Foundation in Missoula, Mont., believes this is a political delisting.
"It's one of those agency feel-good things where they've spent the last 20 years patting themselves on the back and totally ignoring both independent scientists and conservationists," he said.
"I don't think they can prove they are to the point where they can delist them, because virtually every expert says you need 2,000 to 3,000 bears in all six recovery areas with interconnected ecosystems before you have a viable population for the long run."
He said they don't have interconnected ecosystems, don't have 2,000 bears in the Yellowstone, Idaho, Montana and Washington State recovery areas, and are asking for trouble.
In the six recovery areas, there are an estimated total of 1,200 to 1,400 bears.
But Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, disagrees that delisting is a bad move.
"I believe we'll support delisting because our sense is the biology says the Yellowstone population is ready for it," he said. "The states (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) have good management plans in place and are ready to take control."
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