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by Scott Streater, E&E reporter
Wyoming Republican Gov. Matt Mead is calling on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to act quickly and develop a rule removing federal protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, arguing that the iconic predators are thriving in the region.
Mead wrote this week in a one-page letter to Jewell that there is more than enough research and data to validate removing the Yellowstone area grizzlies from the list of plants and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. And he referenced a letter Jewell had written to him in September 2013 in which she said a decision on the status of the Yellowstone population would be coming by early this year.
“The recovery of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem is a conservation success story of our time,” Mead wrote.
“Wyoming has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and other state and federal agencies to compile and evaluate food sources data and the effect of those food sources on grizzly bear populations in the Yellowstone Ecosystem,” he added. “This work substantiates that grizzly bears forage on a broad variety of food. Science demonstrates grizzly bears are expanding — in population and geography — beyond recovery criteria established by FWS and the State of Wyoming.”
Mead pointed to a December report by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team — established in 1973 to collaboratively monitor and manage bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem — that found grizzlies will adapt and thrive despite the collapse of the whitebark pine trees in the region that serve as a key protein source for bears before they go into hibernation. The study team’s report was seen by some as a critical step forward to clearing the way for the bears to be removed from the endangered species list (E&ENews PM, Dec. 11, 2013).
“All regulatory requirements and biological objectives have been met or exceeded,” Mead wrote to Jewell. “It is appropriate to publish a delisting proposal and return management of the grizzly bear to the State of Wyoming and other states in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.”
Jessica Kershaw, an Interior Department spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., confirmed they have received the governor’s letter and are reviewing it.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service won’t be in a position to recommend for or against delisting the bear until it completes a detailed threats analysis this fall, said Chris Servheen, the service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator in Missoula, Mont.
That analysis, which he said has been ongoing since December, is required by the Endangered Species Act to be completed before any decision can be made whether to delist a federally listed species.
“This is not a political decision, it’s a science decision,” Servheen said, adding that the threats analysis will “determine if we have the confidence to determine that the species is recovered.”
“We’re not there yet, and we haven’t made a final decision,” he said.
That differs slightly from what FWS Director Dan Ashe has said publicly in recent months.
Ashe told Greenwire in December that it was likely the service would propose lifting ESA protections in the coming months, noting the interagency study team report that “seems to indicate what we thought before, that grizzly bears are pretty opportunistic” and “can find other food sources” if whitebark pine is not available (Greenwire, Dec. 12, 2013).
But Gavin Shire, an FWS spokesman in Arlington, Va., said today that the service is still “evaluating the status of the grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with regards to a potential delisting proposal.”
FWS officials have said it would likely take about six months to develop a delisting rule.
“We do not have a timeline for this process,” Shire said in an email. “If proposed, the rule would go through a transparent process, including a public comment period.”
A long, contentious history
Mead’s letter is the latest in the ongoing legal battle over the status of the bear, which was originally listed as threatened in 1975. Since that time, population numbers have more than doubled to 600 in the region that includes Yellowstone National Park and portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Copies of Mead’s letter to Jewell were sent to Ashe, as well as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) and Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R).
The growth in numbers has led to some fatal bear attacks on people in recent years; some Western state leaders have expressed a desire to allow grizzly hunts.
FWS delisted the grizzlies in 2007, but that was quickly challenged and the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana reversed the decision in 2009, finding that regulations were not strong enough and that the service had not fully considered threats posed by the decline of whitebark pine.
The decision was appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in November 2011 upheld the lower court’s judgment on whitebark pine, while ruling existing regulations were adequate (E&ENews PM, Nov. 22, 2011).
Environmental groups have had differing opinions on whether to delist the grizzlies in the Yellowstone region.
Some say considering the health of the Yellowstone population separate from the overall population is wrong, since they represent about 2 percent of the bear’s historic range. The better approach is to determine whether grizzlies overall are thriving, said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore.
On that issue, Greenwald said, “I would say overall that grizzly bears are nowhere near recovery.”
“We should not be looking at grizzlies just in Yellowstone and whether that population is recovered, but whether grizzlies are recovered overall,” he added. “The Yellowstone population remains isolated. For the grizzly bear to be recovered, they need to be recovered over a large portion of their range.”
But Mead has been a big proponent for several years of delisting the Yellowstone population of grizzlies.
Mead in 2012 wrote former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to remove the federal protections for grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, noting at the time that the state had spent more than $35 million in bear recovery in the previous two years (Greenwire, May 30, 2012).
Salazar indicated in a letter two months later that he wanted to lift federal protections for the Yellowstone grizzlies (Greenwire, July 24, 2012).
Mead is keeping the pressure on Jewell for a delisting decision.
“Based on your September 2013 letter, I had expected to see a delisting decision in early 2014,” Mead wrote in his letter to Jewell. “There is no reason to wait. I encourage the FWS to work with Wyoming Game and Fish Department to develop and publish a proposed delisting rule expediently.”