Don’t delist Yellowstone grizzly bears

While grizzly bears have undeniably recovered from near extinction, removing ESA protection is premature. PHOTO: © IFAW/S. CookThe US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced plans yesterday to delist Yellowstone grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While grizzlies, especially in and around Yellowstone, have recovered marvelously since they were first granted protections under the ESA in 1975, we believe this latest step is premature and one that could lead to population declines.

Once widespread throughout the western US, grizzly populations had declined drastically in the lower 48 due to hunting (often state-sponsored), habitat loss and the loss of prey and other food sources. At the time of listing, grizzly bears occupied only about two percent of their range south of Canada, with as few as 800 bears making up the population. In the Yellowstone ecosystem—which includes northwest Wyoming, southwest Montana, eastern Idaho and two national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton)—fewer than 200 bears remained.

Grizzly bears are a top predator and a vital piece in the ecosystem puzzle. As with wolves, grizzlies control populations of herbivores—maintaining a delicate balance that controls overgrazing of vegetation. The bears are also a cornerstone in the local eco-tourism industry, a vital source of income for local communities and the state, with people from all around the world visiting the parks to catch a glimpse of a wild grizzly.

Since being listed under the ESA 42 years ago, the population of grizzlies in the lower 48 has risen to an estimated 1,500 individuals. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population now stands at 700, with the bears more than doubling their habitat. This success would not have been possible without the resources, legal protections, habitat restoration efforts and agency coordination required by law under the Endangered Species Act. Yellowstone grizzlies are an ESA success story alongside bald eagles and humpback whales.

However, while grizzly bears have undeniably recovered from near extinction, removing ESA protection is premature.

In 2007, the Bush administration tried to remove the Yellowstone bears from the ESA, declaring these bears as a distinct population and fully recovered. In a lawsuit led by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals found that FWS did not take into account the loss of white park pine due to mountain pine beetles, a factor that significantly reduced the remarkably omnivorous grizzly bear’s prime food source. In combination with pine beetles, the effects of climate change and other invasive species are projected to exacerbate pine losses.

Is the Yellowstone grizzly bear population as stable as FWS claims? Or will the continued loss of a key food source upend years of conservation efforts?

FWS is asking for public input on their decision and will be accepting comments as early as next week for 30 days. We encourage all US citizens to make their voice heard and comment on the Federal Register when the announcement is posted. With these questions unanswered, now is not the time to roll the dice on delisting. Such an action will allow state governments to sanction sport hunting of the bears near the National Parks (bears cover a lot of ground and don’t halt at park boundaries). The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population needs to remain protected in order to maintain a healthy, connected widespread population and environment.

--MH

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