Citing increased population numbers, the Department of the Interior announced Thursday that it would strip protections from the Yellowstone grizzly, one of the best-studied bear populations in the world.
In a statement, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that the bears had recovered enough that state and tribal agencies could take over management of the population.
“As a kid who grew up in Montana, I can tell you that this is a long time coming and very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region,” Zinke said.
Brian Nesvik, Chief Game Warden of Wyoming Game & Fish Dept., echoed Zinke’s sentiment, emphasizing that the delisting of the Yellowstone Grizzly “should be viewed as a major success story resulting from a lot of hard work by many individuals and groups.”
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team estimates that the Yellowstone grizzly has rebounded from about 136 bears to about 700 since 1975, when the federal government instituted protections for the animal under the Endangered Species Act. GPS collars allow the team to monitor the population’s whereabouts.
Conservation groups pledge to fight rule
Still, some conservation groups questioned the bear’s delisting. In a statement released this morning, Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said her organization is “very concerned” about the decision to remove protections from the Yellowstone Grizzly because the plan “ignores multiple issues raised by the public and wildlife rangers.”
Among those concerns is that one of the bears’ main food sources, the whitebark pine, has decreased due to mountain pine beetles that thrive in increasingly warm temperatures. As climate change causes temperatures to rise across the region, environmental advocates are concerned that the Yellowstone grizzly’s food sources will continue to diminish.
Nesvik challenged the idea that sparse whitebark would prejudice grizzlies, arguing that they are “opportunistic omnivores” that eat hundreds of other available foods including grubs, insects, and small mammals.
In a blog post, Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice, suggested that his organization might contest the delisting in court.
“The government’s campaign to remove protections provided by the Endangered Species Act overlooked important conservation issues and denied public comment on key points,” Preso said. “We will closely examine this decision, and are prepared to defend the grizzly if necessary.”
Some Native American advocates also protested the move. Brandon Sazue, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux, told the New York Times that his tribe was “completely ignored in this delisting process,” despite legal obligations for the federal government to consult with tribes.
With the federal government no longer charged with maintaining the health of the species, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming will assume responsibility for monitoring and management. Speaking to the Associated Press, Idaho Governor C.L. Otter said state officials would have to review the rule change before deciding about a possible hunt.