Wyoming, Montana and Idaho could create a limited hunting season for grizzly bears.
Step taken to delist grizzly bears
By NOELLE STRAUB
Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The grizzly bear, that "great icon of the American West," has rebounded so well in the Yellowstone area that Interior Secretary Gale Norton declared success Tuesday and took a first step toward ending its protected status under the Endangered Species Act.
"Today we celebrate an extraordinary accomplishment in the history of American conservation," Norton said. "The greater Yellowstone population of grizzly bears, a population that was once plummeting toward extinction, is now recovered."
When first listed in 1975, only 220 to 320 bears remained in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but that number has jumped to more than 600 now. Four other grizzly populations in the lower 48 states have not recovered as fully and will continue to be protected as threatened species.
If delisted, the Yellowstone-area bears would be managed by the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho along with the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
"They're as much legend and symbol as they are flesh-and-blood animals that survive in Wyoming and Yellowstone, and it's fitting that the West be allowed to manage the grizzly," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. "It'll be both for its benefit and our own."
Before the proposal can take effect, the public will have a chance to weigh in. A 90-day comment period begins Thursday, when the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register. Norton said she expects a final decision next year.
A team of federal, state and university biologists has developed a detailed management plan known as the grizzly conservation strategy that would take effect upon delisting. The strategy, with its goal of maintaining a population of at least 500 bears, establishes habitat standards, limits on the number of bear deaths and a comprehensive monitoring system.
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho plan to classify grizzlies as game animals, making it illegal for people to shoot or harm them unless they are threatening human lives. But all three states could create a limited hunting season for grizzly bears outside national parks, if scientific data indicate they could sustain a certain level of kills. Any bear kills, including hunting, would count against mortality limits set in the conservation strategy.
Some environmental groups oppose delisting the bears. The Natural Resources Defense Council argues that the grizzlies are not yet ready for such a move, saying it would open more bear habitat to development, drilling and logging. The group also claims that any bear that wanders outside the designated primary conservation area would be more likely to be killed.
But Chris Smith, chief of staff for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who participated in the development of the strategy and traveled to Washington for the announcement, emphasized a commitment to the bears' future.
"The way we've structured the conservation strategy, the core area of the Yellowstone ecosystem provides a solid foundation for the grizzly bear population and at least within Montana there are no limits on where bears will be able to expand into additional habitat," he said.
Terry Cleveland, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and also in Washington for the day, emphasized his full commitment to maintaining the recovered population levels.
"We're pumping in about $1 million a year to grizzly bear work in Wyoming, that includes both our management side and our conflict side - we are heavily engaged and have been for 30 years," he said. "If you look at the peer review of the science, all the scientists agree the population is fully recovered and warrants delisting and we fully support that."
Asked about lawsuits critics could file to try to stop the delisting, Norton replied, "Everything we do at the Department of the Interior ends up being challenged in a lawsuit. One of my employees once said that getting a notice of a new lawsuit is like getting a letter addressed to occupant."
Enzi and the two other senators at the announcement, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, used the occasion to call for reforms of the Endangered Species Act. They argued that it took too long for the government to move toward delisting the bears.
Thomas is preparing to introduce legislative reforms to the act this week.
"It's time to evaluate it and see if there are some ways to modernize it and make it work somewhat better," Thomas said. "I think we have to take a look at the length of time it takes to have this happen and not let it exceed that necessary time."
Jim Lyon of the National Wildlife Federation, who also spoke at the announcement alongside Norton and the senators, defended the Endangered Species Act.
"The nation's wildlife safety net for imperiled species does work and the American public's continued support for it is validated today," he said.