Federal wildlife managers plan to lift protections for Yellowstone's iconic grizzly bear population, but conservation groups and scientists oppose the move, citing evidence that the bears cannot survive without Endangered Species Act safeguards.
The announcement that Yellowstone grizzly bears will be removed from the list of endangered species has been expected since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the bears in November 2005. Since then, the agency has been flooded with comments from the public stating that the move is premature.
Yellowstone grizzly bears face a troubling future because of global warming. Yellowstone grizzlies depend on the seeds produced by the whitebark pine tree. Global warming is causing beetles to kill this key grizzly food source at alarming rates.
"Just like polar bears, grizzly bears are threatened by global warming," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold. "They live in a world of shrinking habitat due to warming weather. The Fish and Wildlife Service didn't see global warming coming and has no game plan for the loss of whitebark pines and the related harm to grizzlies."
Grizzly bears in the contiguous United States occupy only 2 percent of their historic habitat. Only one percent of their historic population levels survive today.
Delisting rescinds many needed protections for bear habitat, including limitations on road-building, logging, and oil and gas development in much of the public lands currently used by grizzlies.
Critics of delisting also observe that nearly 40 percent of lands used by grizzlies today in the Yellowstone ecosystem is outside of the designated recovery area. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service counts the bears outside of the protected area to conclude that the population meets recovery levels, the agency has not taken steps to ensure the bears' viability in those areas after delisting.
The government's decision to delist will also subject the bears to hunting in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service expressed confidence that states will comply with new mortality limits, public comments on the delisting proposal suggest that the agency underestimates hostility toward grizzly bears that could threaten their survival after federal protections are removed. In Wyoming, four counties (Park, Fremont, Sublette, and Lincoln) have passed ordinances and resolutions to express their intolerance of grizzly bears within their borders. For example, Fremont County resolved in 2002 that grizzly bears are an "unacceptable species" that constitutes "a threat to the public health, safety, and livelihood" of the citizens of Fremont County.
"We're disappointed that federal wildlife managers have abdicated their responsibility to protect this magnificent animal, and we will continue to fight for their survival," says Honnold.