The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Thursday removing federal protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears.
A decision to take grizzly bears off the endangered species list could pave the way for a hunting season for the first time since the animals were declared threatened in the 1970s.
Grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem are recovered, the Fish and Wildlife Service stated in an announcement. About 700 bears live in the area today. They historically ranged across most of North America, but their numbers crashed to as few as 136 before the mid-’70s because of hunting and trapping.
“The recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly bear represents a historic success for partnership-driven wildlife conservation under the Endangered Species Act,” said service director Dan Ashe. “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.”
About 60 percent of Yellowstone grizzlies live in Wyoming, where the state has supported a delisting for years, said Brian Nesvik, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s chief game warden. The remaining bears live in Idaho and Montana.
Gov. Matt Mead praised the decision, saying: “Grizzly bears have exceeded all recovery goals. Delisting the grizzly bear is good for the species, for Wyoming and for the West.”
Grizzlies were first removed from the endangered species list in 2007 before being placed back on in 2009. A judge at the time cited concerns over food supplies, such as declines in whitebark pine and inadequate regulatory mechanisms.
Those issues have been resolved, Nesvik said.
A group of government researchers showed in 2013 that whitebark pine cones are not critical to the future of grizzly bear survival because of the variety of foods grizzlies consume.
If the delisting is approved, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana may decide to allow hunting. The three states have a preliminary understanding that limits the number of bears that would be allowed to be killed for either management reasons, such as problem bears, or hunting, Nesvik said.
Any hunting in Wyoming would be “conservative,” he added, and would be approved by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission only after an extensive public comment period. Hunting would not be allowed in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
If bear numbers drop below 600, intentional killings through hunting and the removal of bears that attack livestock would be prohibited. Bears that are a threat to the public could still be killed, Nesvik said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, criticized the decision.
“Given all of the uncertainty facing the Yellowstone grizzly, we do not think it is time to declare victory for these bears just yet,” wrote Sylvia Fallon, senior scientist for the group, in a release. “Yellowstone grizzly bears are an isolated population that is experiencing high levels of conflicts with people and is likely declining in the wake of the loss of whitebark pine, a critically important food source.”
But not all wildlife advocacy groups disagree with the delisting proposal. The National Wildlife Federation called grizzly bears a conservation success story, and said the decision to delist is “the appropriate next step in the evolution of their restoration.”
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group focused on conservation efforts within the Yellowstone ecosystem, said in a statement it would “scrutinize” the federal plan.
“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,” said executive director Caroline Byrd. “If these critical issues are not addressed, we will use all tools available to ensure that grizzly bears remain protected.”
The draft rule with details of the plan will be published in the Federal Register in a few days, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Public comment will be accepted after the proposed rule is published. A final decision is expected within a year, depending on how quickly state agencies adopt their own rules.
Wyoming will work on its own draft management plan as the feds go through their public comment period, Nesvik said.
A delisting will likely not mean more money spent on management in Wyoming. The Cowboy State has spent about $40 million on grizzly bear management since they were listed, Nesvik said, but almost always under the supervision of the Fish and Wildlife Service. A delisting would mean Wyoming continued to manage grizzly bears without requiring federal consultation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.