Chris Servheen is grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula.
"The bear population is healthy. It’s been healthy for some time. Right now in the Yellowstone ecosystem, grizzly bears occupy more habitat than the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined," Servheen says.
Grizzlies in the lower 48 states were added to the endangered and threatened species list in 1975. According to government researchers, the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly population has rebounded from as few as 136 then to over 700 today.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chris Servheen says this delisting proposal is based on much more than just bear numbers; there’s habitat management for one:
"Which limits the amount of road building and livestock grazing. It limits the amount of site development in what’s called the primary conservation area which is the old recovery zone. We also have mortality limits; limits on adult female mortality, adult male mortality and sub-adult mortality and how many bears can die in order to have a healthy population.”
Wildlife officials plan to maintain the Yellowstone population at about 674 bears. That’s the average population recorded since 2002. If bear numbers drop below 600, strictly regulated hunting of the bears would stop. So would removal of bears that attack livestock. The only exception would be killing of bears that threaten public safety.
Some environmental organizations, such as the Montana Wildlife Federation, offered cautious support to today’s delisting proposal announcement.
Others, however, say it’s just too soon to consider doing this.
"While we’re not surprised (by the delisting announcement), we are a little disappointed. We do think the delisting at this point is premature for a number of reasons."
That’s Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney Andrea Santarsiere.
Santarsiere says grizzlies occupy less than 4 percent of their historic U.S. range.
"They’re not recovered by any means across any of their suitable historic range in the Western U.S. That Greater Yellowstone population is still very isolated."
Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chris Servheen says the delisting proposal addresses that concern.
"The idea is to facilitate the movement of grizzly bears, particularly between the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and the Yellowstone Ecosystem, and to see eventual movement between those two ecosystems.”
Center for Biological Diversity Attorney Andrea Santarsiere also points out the decline of key food sources that Yellowstone grizzlies rely upon.
"The whitebark pine obviously has been impacted by climate change. Yellowstone cutthroat trout is another major food source. They’ve been taken over by lake trout. And as the winters are getting shorter and warmer with climate change, the bears are having less winter killed ungulates when they come out of their dens in the spring to feed on.”
Chris Servheen counters that researchers have studied the Yellowstone bears’ changing food sources:
"The end result of their analysis was that they couldn’t detect any effect of the changes in food resources. Not only at the individual level, but on the population level. So, we don’t believe that food changes are a threat.”
The Center for Biological Diversity says it will closely study the proposal when it’s released for public review and comment next week. The organization hasn’t yet decided whether or not to legally challenge it.
A final delisting decision is due in 6 months to a year.