The Department of the Interior announced today that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is officially removing the Yellowstone grizzly bear as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.
The delisting will take effect at the end of April, by which time many Yellowstone grizzlies will have come out of hibernation. “From the point of view of the bears, they won’t see much difference,” FWS biologist Chris Servheen said during today’s news conference.
Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said in a news release, “The grizzly’s remarkable comeback is the result of years of intensive cooperative recovery efforts between federal and state agencies, conservation groups, and individuals. There is simply no way to overstate what an amazing accomplishment this is…”
When the grizzly was first put on the endangered species list in 1975, scientists estimated there were 136 to 312 bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Today, according the department, the population is more than 500.
Yellowstone grizzlies will now be managed under a comprehensive conservation strategy developed by state and federal scientists and managers that includes intensive monitoring and management. The conservation strategy incorporates “the best available science,” Servheen said, and allows for flexibility to adapt to new scientific information and changes in habitat and population.
Between state and federal agencies, about $2.6 million has been spent in the monitoring and management of the Yellowstone grizzly under the Endangered Species Act. That number will soon jump to about $3.7 million due to the rigor of the conservation strategy that will soon be in place.
Chris Smith, chairman of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, notes that more financial burden will be carried by the states. “It’s going to be a challenge for the state to meet those financial obligations.” But, he adds, with the grizzly being is a national icon, there are ways to increase federal funding to ensure its protection.
Even with states having full management authority, FWS director Dale Hall said, the simple objective of the Endangered Species Act remains: to make sure species and ecosystems are in good enough shape.
Among arguments against delisting, opponents cite global climate change as an unheeded threat to the grizzly’s continued recovery. Warming of the region, evidence suggests, is increasing the range of pine beetles allowing them to kill an increasing number of whitebark pine trees, the seeds of which grizzlies rely on.
Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold said in a release, “(Grizzlies) 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.”
In response Servheen said, “White bark pine is not an annually productive food for Grizzly Bears,” adding, “(The Grizzly’s) long-term survival is not dependent on the production of white bark pine cones.”
The question of whether grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem will now be subject to hunting remains unclear. “If it was to happen it would be no more than a handful,” Servheen said.
Whatever “handful” means, the number of grizzly licenses distributed would surely be less than the number distributed to kill wolves should they be delisted as well, as proposed by FWS. Idaho, for example, plans to reduce its wolf population of 600 by as much as 75 percent upon transfer of management to states.
The discrepancy between how grizzlies and wolves would be managed post-delisting is, in part, a function of their reproductive rates, said Servheen. Grizzlies reproduce slowly while wolves reproduce rapidly, with an average of four or five surviving pups in a litter.
When asked if FWS is expecting a lawsuit, Dale Hall said, “Unfortunately, we assume that with whatever decision we make someone is poised to sue us.”
There are four other grizzly populations in the contiguous United States that have not yet recovered and will continue to be protected as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.