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Uproar Over Grizzlies' Likely Loss of Endangered Status

James Owen
for National Geographic News
August 18, 2005
 
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 motive—to 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."

Lost Habitat

As bear numbers have increased, Craighead says, the amount of available habitat outside the national park has decreased. "All indications are that habitat will continue to be lost," he said.

Yet the United States' largest environmental organization, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), strongly supports delisting.

Tom France, NWF director for the northern Rockies region, says state and other nonfederal agencies are well placed to take on the job of guarding the grizzly bear.

According to the delisting plan, the amount of land open to development in the primary conservation area won't be allowed to increase beyond 1998 levels.

In the managed zone outside the primary conservation area, up to 40 percent of bear habitat is already designated as protected wilderness and so is secure, France says.

The U.S. Forest Service controls a significant percentage of this outer grizzly zone, and the plan is to keep this zone undeveloped and roadless, he says.

"There isn't a document that says that beyond the six-million-acre core, this is grizzly bear habitat. But when you look at the array of management directions and other protections that exist, there's an enormous amount of very secure habitat available for bears," France added.

Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have plans to allow hunters to shoot grizzlies that become a nuisances to people. Kills must be kept within a federal mortality limit set for the entire Greater Yellowstone Area, France said.

This quota will also count bears killed as a result of road collisions or due to other human causes, and it must not exceed 4 percent of the total Greater Yellowstone Area grizzly population.

If the quota, currently set at 17 bears a year, is exceeded, an automatic management review is triggered.

"There's a real incentive for state management agencies that want a hunting season to pay very close attention to reducing all other sources of mortality," France added.

Grizzly Attacks

Nonfederal agencies and other groups have been active over the past decade in finding nonlethal ways to minimize the threat of grizzly attacks on people and livestock, France said. (See "'Grizzly Man' Movie Spurs New Looks at a Grisly Death.")

Measures include bear-proofing forest campsites outside of the national parks and paying ranchers to move their livestock off public land.

The Predator Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit group based in Bozeman, Montana, provides horseback riders to help ranchers move cattle away from bears that get too close.

"All of these programs evolved outside of the Endangered Species Act," France added. "And all these programs will continue after delisting occurs."

Besides several bird species, only two U.S. animals have been ESA-delisted due to population recovery—the American alligator in 1987 and the California gray whale in 1994.

This lack of precedence, France says, has been one of the challenges in creating a road map for delisting the grizzly.

But, he adds, "both state and federal agencies will have to do well by this plan. It will not look good on anybody's résumé if the grizzly strategy fails."

Failure, France says, would mean the bear's relisting as an endangered species. Under the new conservation plan this would be triggered, for example, if the population falls below 500 grizzlies.

"If things start coming apart at the seams, the management decision is clear, and that's a move back towards federal protection," he said.

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