"The grizzly bear has done well in Yellowstone National Park and adjacent wilderness areas, but when it has ventured onto other Forest Service lands just outside the park it has been killed at unsustainable rates," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold. "Those lands are the very same lands that the Bush administration has targeted for clearcutting, roading, and oil and gas development. You can't protect the grizzly if you don't protect its habitat."
Between 50,000 and 100,000 grizzlies once roamed the western United States but most Americans have never seen a grizzly bear in the wild and never will. That's because America has lost 99 percent of its grizzly population and 98 percent of its habitat has been eliminated. Grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, including those in and around Yellowstone National Park, were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 after being driven to the brink of extinction. At the time, their numbers dwindled to an estimated 100 to 200 bears. Yellowstone's grizzlies have since rebounded to 500 to 600 bears, but conservationists warn that too many threats remain to strip the bears of protection safely.
"Federal protection is the only reason these bears exist in Yellowstone today, and they aren't yet ready to survive without it," said Louisa Willcox, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Wild Bears Project. "It is a tremendous progress story, but the last chapters aren't yet written. We want to make sure there is a happy ending for both the grizzlies and the communities of greater Yellowstone."
Independent scientist have repeatedly warned that lifting federal protections is the wrong thing to do at this time if one is interested in maintaining a healthy long term grizzly bear population.
"We do not have full recovery of grizzly bears yet because the bears are not dispersed across wide enough habitat," said Chuck Neal, retired US FWS ecologist. "We must have grizzly bears across a broader area of occupied, contiguous, diverse habitat in order to feel any degree of confidence that recovery has been achieved."
Removing federal protection for grizzly bears would also inevitably result in more bears being killed by humans. Roughly 300 bears are known to have died from human causes since the bears were listed according to the federal government's own Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that for every known grizzly killed, at least another bear was killed illegally, which means the total number of bears killed by people since 1975 may be closer to 600.
Under the delisting proposal, the federal government would turn over responsibility for grizzlies outside the park to the surrounding states. About one half of the roughly 600 Yellowstone area grizzlies live outside the park and a surrounding area known as the grizzly "Recovery Zone." If the population is delisted, any bears that wander outside this area would be at increased risk of death. That's because the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho all have plans to allow grizzly hunting when the bears are delisted. Many officials in the state of Wyoming are openly hostile toward grizzlies, and four counties have passed resolutions prohibiting the bears within their borders.
"We're afraid that delisting would result in open season on any grizzlies that wander outside the park," said Willcox. "Grizzly bears don't read maps."
Today a grizzly bear is more likely to die of an encounter with people than of old age or natural causes. Last year was the worst year for grizzly killings since 1975, according to the Los Angeles Times. The 20 female Yellowstone grizzlies killed in or around the park last year were among 54 killed in the lower 48 states. Most bears are killed outside park boundaries near areas of growing human population. Bears are killed primarily because of conflicts with hunters or because they become nuisance bears habituated to human food and garbage.
The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to lift grizzly protections opens a 90-day comment period during which the public is invited to submit formal comments. Conservationists are urging Americans to tell the government that they oppose delisting grizzly bears until permanent protections are in place for their habitat and their long-term survival is secure.