Feds Move to Strip Yellowstone's Iconic Grizzly Bears of Protections
Premature Proposal Bows to State Pressure, Ignores Science and Ongoing Threats
MISSOULA, MONT. — Late Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a proposed rule to remove Endangered Species Act protections from Yellowstone’s iconic grizzly bears. Though grizzlies occupy less than two‐percent of their historic range in the lower-48 states, the Service decided to place political interests ahead of its duty to recover the species as a whole.
“Like history repeating itself, the Service is once again attempting to evade its duty to protect imperiled wildlife on behalf of all Americans,” said Kelly Nokes, carnivore campaign lead for WildEarth Guardians. “The Service should be devoting public resources toward achieving grizzly bears’ recovery across their range, not cherry--‐picking one population to prematurely declare success while undermining restoration everywhere else.”
The proposed rule states the population will be managed to a minimum population of just 500 bears – over 200 fewer bears than the current population estimate. The bears will be treated as a game species after federal protections are removed, opening them up to extremely controversial sport hunting seasons in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Alongside the proposed rule, the Service released a draft Conservation Strategy and draft supplement to the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. Together, these documents will direct future management decisions for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. However, these documents rely heavily on state and federal management decisions that have yet to be made, making the proposed stripping of protections based on mere promises of future actions.
“Instead of ensuring connectivity and helping grizzlies recover across their range, the Service is bowing to pressure from states interested primarily in making a quick buck from trophy hunting licenses,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Moving to strip bears of protections without having robust state management plans in place is backward and stinks of playing politics over engaging in transparent public process.”
Despite the Service’s claims that the current population is stable and increasing, the science underlying those assertions is hotly contested. Scientists, conservationists and members of the public have long criticized the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team’s refusal to release the raw data underlying its population estimates. Controversy remains regarding the questionable methodologies the study team used to reach its conclusion that population objectives have been achieved and that a proposal to strip bears of protections is thereby warranted.
Extirpated to near extinction by the 1970s, the grizzly bear was one of the first species protected under the Act in 1975. The largest sub--‐populations of grizzly bears in the lower‐48 currently reside in the Greater Yellowstone area and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which surrounds Glacier National Park. Smaller sub‐populations of grizzly bears are also found in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, Washington and British Columbia, Canada and the Cabinet‐Yaak area of northwestern Montana and northern Idaho. Efforts to restore grizzlies to the North Cascades region of north‐central Washington are currently underway. Despite prime habitat and designation as an important recovery zone, the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana and central Idaho have yet to see grizzlies return to the area. Connectivity between these populations is key to ensuring recovery of grizzlies across their range.
"Allowing trophy hunting of the Yellowstone population bears will undermine connectivity and cripple recovery efforts,” said Nokes. “The law is clear: removing Endangered Species Act protections is only proper once the species is recovered throughout its range, which is not yet the case for grizzlies.”
Numbering upwards of 50,000 bears when Lewis and Clark explored the rugged west in the 1800s, grizzlies clearly have a long way to go before they may rightfully be deemed recovered to the American west. In 2015 alone, the Yellowstone population declined by six‐percent, including mortality from poaching, vehicle strikes, and shooting. This concerning count is not mentioned in the proposed rule, which conveniently omits the 2015 data.
“It is absurd that after decades trying to bring grizzlies back to Yellowstone, the agency charged with looking out for the bears’ best interests would shamelessly allow the species’ demise by trophy hunters’ bullets,” said Nokes. “We call on the Service to immediately withdraw the ill--‐advised and premature proposal.”