The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today began removing federal Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears, marking a conservation milestone that’s been four decades in the making.
The federal agency listed the Yellowstone grizzly as threatened on July 28, 1975 when there were perhaps as few as 136 grizzlies left in the ecosystem. Removing federal protection and turning management over to the states comes as the population stands at an official estimate of 717.
“The recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly bear represents a historic success for partnership-driven wildlife conservation under the Endangered Species Act,” Dan Ashe, director of the USFWS, said in a statement. “Our proposal today underscores and celebrates more than 30 years of collaboration with our trusted federal, state and tribal partners to address the unique habitat challenges of grizzlies. The final post-delisting management plans by these partners will ensure healthy grizzly populations persist across the Yellowstone ecosystem long into the future.”
Federal and state plans seek to maintain a stable population of about 674 bears — the average number between 2002 and 2014. They would be counted in a 19,279-square mile Demographic Monitoring Area with Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks at the core.
Gov. Matt Mead responded immediately. “We have been working for several years with the Secretary of Interior and the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service one-on-one, along with our staffs to get to this decision,” he said in a statement. “The proposed rule is to delist grizzly bears. Grizzly bears are recovered and have been for more than a decade. It is a great success story.”
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition said it would carefully review the plans. “Yellowstone grizzly bears are one of our country’s greatest conservation success stories and transitioning bears off the endangered species list must be done in a way that continues this legacy,” Caroline Byrd, executive director, said in a statement. “The delisting rule must adequately protect grizzly habitat, commit to reducing human-caused conflict, and promote connectivity. It must also require coordinated management among Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that maintains a healthy, stable population. If these critical issues are not addressed, we will use all tools available to ensure that grizzly bears remain protected.”
Bears outside the DMA won’t count toward the total. Officials believe their method of counting is conservative. Conservation focus will be on the Primary Conservation Area within the DMA but larger than the two parks.
Delisting will be carried out through promulgation of rules, regulations, agreements, notices, plans, a conservation strategy and other bureaucratic necessities that will undergo public review. The conservation strategy is a guide for monitoring and managing grizzlies and their habitat to ensure their persistence.
The federal agency has released a draft supplement to the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan and a draft conservation strategy.
The conservation strategy includes agreements on mortality limits, including non-discretionary mortalities like the death of grizzlies hit by vehicles or removed for unacceptable behavior like repeated livestock killings or even stalking and attacking people.
Hunting likely to follow
In addition, removal of ESA protection would allow some “discretionary mortality,” including hunting, that would be regulated by the three neighboring states. The federal government through the USFWS concerns itself with the population-level view of the species and overall annual mortality. It will leave it to states to decide which bears might be hunted where and when outside the two national parks.
Federal officials said they’ve put national park leaders in touch with state game agencies to work out how park boundary bears that are popular tourist attractions might be protected once they leave Park Service sanctuaries
The same park-state relationship would help guide whether hunting would be allowed in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, a 24,000 acre preserve between Yellowstone and Grand Teton. It is U.S. Forest Service land that’s not part of either park and therefore under Wyoming Game and Fish Commission jurisdiction when it comes to hunting.
Federal officials also have worked with Montana wildlife counterparts regarding bears that might travel between the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Yellowstone. Such connectivity would help ensure genetic diversity in the isolated Yellowstone ecosystem population.
But it’s possible traveling grizzlies could be hunted or otherwise endangered along that journey. Specifics regarding protection of such bears were not immediately available on Thursday.
Federal officials brought the bear back from the edge of extinction by stopping hunting, establishing a recovery area around the parks and creating a team to coordinate, study and direct management. A 1993 recovery plan, revised in 2006, sought to ensure a well-distributed population whose mortality was limited.
USFWS will accept comments for 60-days after publication of a proposed rule in the Federal Register, which is expected in coming days. People can submit electronically at http://www.regulations.gov by entering Docket Number FWS–R6–ES–2016–0042, in the search box and then clicking on the “Comment Now!” button.