for National Geographic News
The rebounding grizzly bears of Yellowstone may be taken off the U.S. endangered species list as early as next month.
Should the move be cheered as a conservation triumph? Or will it spur a slide back into endangerment? And is there an ulterior motiveto open bear habitats to the oil, gas, and timber industries?
It depends who you ask.
The proposed lifting of U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for grizzlies in the so-called Greater Yellowstone Area follows a 30-year period of recovery. In that time Yellowstone grizzly numbers have grown from 200 to more than 600 today.
The Greater Yellowstone Area crosses the borders of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Its 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) encompass Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, six national forests, two national wildlife refuges, Native American reservations, and assorted private properties.
Various wildlife conservation groups are strongly opposed to delisting. The end of federal protection will leave the grizzly vulnerable to habitat loss and persecution outside the sanctuary of Yellowstone National Park, they say.
Once the bear's habitat is no longer protected under the ESA, development, logging, roadbuilding, and new oil and gas operations will be major threats, the Sierra Club says.
The National Resources Defense Council predicts the return of hunting for grizzly bears in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Bears wandering out of the park will be fair game, the advocacy group warns.
Bear biologist Lance Craighead echoes such fears. "Wyoming and Idaho especially are not interested in letting bears expand outside of the recovery zone, but one-third of the [grizzly] population already lives outside it," said Craighead, director of the Craighead Environmental Research Institute in Bozeman, Montana.
Under the U.S. government's delisting plan, the 6-million-acre (2.4 million hectare) recovery zone will become the "primary conservation area." In this area grizzlies are expected to have protections similar to those currently provided under the ESA.
Outside the conservation area, state-level and other agencies will manage an additional six million acres for grizzly bears.
"A lot of bears are living on land outside the recovery zone," Craighead added. "Development there has been restricted because of the bear's status. But once it's off, then the Bush Administration really has nothing to slow down oil and gas development and timber harvest in those areas."
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