HELENA, Mont. — After 42 years on the Endangered Species list, the Yellowstone grizzly bear — whose numbers have grown to more than 700 from fewer than 150 — will lose its protected status, the Interior Department announced on Thursday.
The controversial move has long been debated, despite the bear’s increasing population in areas where it had not been seen in decades. The Fish and Wildlife Service tried to delist the bear in 2007, but was ordered by federal court decisions to reconsider its analysis because of a decline in white bark pine, a key bear food source that has been decimated by insects partly because of warmer temperatures in the region.
In making the decision to lift the protection, Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior, remarked on the long-term efforts that have allowed the bear to thrive: “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners,” Mr. Zinke said in a statement. “As a Montanan I am proud of what we’ve achieved together.”
This action will not affect the other major population of grizzlies in the lower 48 states, those that live in and around Glacier National Park of Montana, which number about 1,000. However, experts say this population too could soon be delisted.
The rule to remove the Yellowstone bear from the endangered list will be published in the federal register sometime in the near future and take effect 30 days after that.
Eliminating threatened species protection under the Endangered Species Act paves the way for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to take over responsibility for the big bear from federal managers outside the park. That means fewer restrictions on the bear’s management — it could be shot by landowners if it’s stalking cattle for instance — and will likely include a hunting season for grizzlies. Bears within the boundaries the national park will remain a federal responsibility and will not be hunted, unless they leave Yellowstone.
Delisting the big bruin, or Ursus arctos horribilis, is opposed by a number of conservation groups and Native American tribes who say climate change has cast the Yellowstone region into ecological uncertainty and could lead to problems for the bear in the future.
“We have to wait 60 days, but on the 61st day we will sue to stop the delisting,” said Matt Bishop, of the Western Environmental Law Center, a Montana based nonprofit that intervenes on behalf of conservation groups.
Meanwhile some 125 Native American tribes from the United States and Canada have signed the Grizzly Treaty to oppose the delisting, saying the government failed to consult with them. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe is “one of the Associated Tribes of Yellowstone and yet we were completely ignored in this delisting process, despite our declaration, our resolution and petition for inclusion,” said Brandon Sazue, the tribe’s chairman.
Opponents of the delisting say that Yellowstone is an island population of bears, cut off from others of its kind, and that it may not have a broad enough spectrum of genetics to adapt to a changing environment in the future. They also believe that climate change could cause further declines in food sources, some of which, like the white bark pine, have already seen drastic reductions.
But proponents of relaxing protections say the big bears are adaptable, once thriving from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as Minnesota. In Yellowstone, bears make use of some 265 different food sources, from the roots of tiny wildflowers, to moths and ladybugs to elk.
Even the conservation community is split on the delisting. While some groups are adamantly opposed and say the future of the species is still at risk, others consider the bear recovered and say it should be delisted.
“It’s recovered under any metric we look at,” said Tom France, regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, Mont. “We should consider it a great success.”
Protecting the grizzly bear, which was one of the first members on the list of endangered species under the 1973 law, has been a challenge. Adult males can weigh as much as 700 pounds, and the bears occasionally attack and kill people. The bears also have a very low birthrate. Sows have their first cubs at five to eight years of age, and space them three years apart. Just one in three cubs survives to adulthood. A grizzly lives about 30 years on average.
But officials accomplished the recovery mainly by removing the association between people and food, so the bears stay wild. The days of bears stealing picnic baskets, once a very real phenomena, have been stamped out. Trash in and around the park, as well as food in campsites, is to be kept in bear-proof containers or in vehicles. Food-conditioned bears often have to be removed from the population.
Technology has also played a role in the bear’s recovery. Some 10 percent of grizzlies wear GPS collars that record their location as often as every hour and then remotely download that information on to a computer overhead in an airplane. A single hair can provide information about a bear’s diet over the last six months. That means there are few secrets left on what the bear needs in terms of habitat and allows for better conservation.
A delisting, if it is borne out after lawsuits are settled, doesn’t mean the federal government would be completely divorced from dealing with the bears. State management would be monitored for five years after the delisting, and if numbers fall below 600, special rules will kick in to reduce hunting and other mortalities.
The prospect of hunting grizzly bears for sport is exciting for some, but disturbing to others. Bears are highly intelligent and research since 1975 has shown that animals in general are far smarter than we thought.