Federal officials are taking Yellowstone grizzly bears off the list of "threatened" species, saying there enough bears now to stabilize the population in the years to come.
Thursday's announcement from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke comes after decades of study and formalizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement last year to move the grizzlies from protection through the Endangered Species Act.
The bears were protected in 1975, when there were as few as 136. Today, biologists estimate there are over 700 grizzlies alone in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem -- and area that includes Yellowstone National Park, and surrounding lands in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Federal biologists say that means there's a stable population, and the bears are no longer "threatened".
However, the announcement is already drawing fire from tribal leaders, who complain they weren't consulted, and conservation groups who are already promising to sue to block de-listing.
Unless it's blocked by the courts, the de-listing opens the way for the states to control bear populations with hunting. Grizzlies will still be protected inside the park.
The announcement has no impact on grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes the Bob Marshall Wilderness and lands surrounding Glacier National Park.
Those are a "distinct population" which are being studied separately. However, conservation groups have argued the bears are biologically linked all along the Continental Divide and shouldn't be managed as independent species.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) quickly praised the announcement that federal protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears would be lifted.
“It will be great to see the grizzly bear recovered and off the endangered species list,” Daines said in a press release. “I was 12 years old growing up in Bozeman when steps began to restore the grizzly bear population. As an avid backpacker, hiker and fisherman, I know firsthand the importance of conservation to Montana. I look forward to continuing to work with the state of Montana as they take the lead in the protection of the grizzly."
“Grizzlies in and around Yellowstone have made an incredible recovery, and the best available science – along with a smart Montana-driven management plan – must guide their future success," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).
Newly sworn-in Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) also backed Thursday's decision.
“This is an incredible win for Montana and for the Grizzly Bear,” stated Gianforte. “I applaud the work that was done to aid in their recovery. With this act, management control of the Grizzly Bear in the Yellowstone Ecosystem returns to Montana, where it belongs. The next step is to de-list the Grizzly Bear across all of Montana.”
Montana Governor Steve Bullock issued the following statement after the decision was announced.
"The recovery of the iconic Grizzly Bear is a remarkable success story – one which we should celebrate while remaining focused on protecting the very habitat that made recovery possible,” said Gov. Bullock. “Montana embraces the responsibility of managing wildlife and we look forward to continuing the collaboration and responsible stewardship that led to this significant milestone.”
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead also praised the decision.
“Grizzly bears have met or exceeded recovery objectives since 2003 and have long warranted delisting. In 2013, I asked Secretary Salazar to delist the grizzly bears and much work toward this end has been done. I appreciate that the FWS is proceeding now with the delisting,” Mead said in a press release. “The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which includes the FWS and Wyoming Game and Fish, must be commended for its years of great work. Thanks to the team effort, grizzlies will be managed appropriately by our experts at Game and Fish. I thank all involved in the delisting effort.”
“As a kid who grew up in Montana, I can tell you that this is a long time coming and very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region," said U.S. Interior Secretary Zinke. "This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of the state, tribal, federal and private partners. As a Montanan, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together.”
“The grizzly is an iconic symbol of wildness, and the Yellowstone area is one of the last places in the lower 48 states where we can still see a grizzly in the wild,” said Tim Preso, Earthjustice’s managing attorney for our Northern Rockies regional office.
“The government’s campaign to remove protections provided by the Endangered Species Act overlooked important conservation issues and denied public comment on key points," Preso added. "We will closely examine this decision, and are prepared to defend the grizzly if necessary.”
Kelly Nokes, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians and Matthew Bishop, attorney and Rocky Mountains office director for the Western Environmental Law Center who represents Guardians in a forthcoming challenge to the decision offered the following statement in response to the Service’s announcement:
“The Service is derailing the recovery of this iconic species by prematurely stripping the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears of federal protections. As a result of today’s announcement, Yellowstone’s bears may soon face a trophy hunter firing line once they roam outside the safety of our beloved national parks."
"It’s a purely political decision devoid of any scientific support," according to a statement from the Western Environmental Law Center.
“It’s tragic that the Trump administration is stripping protections from these magnificent animals just to appease a tiny group of trophy hunters who want to stick grizzly bear heads on their walls,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This outrageously irresponsible decision ignores the best available science. Grizzly conservation has made significant strides, but the work to restore these beautiful bears has a long way to go.”
The final rule, and the supporting documents will publish in coming days in the Federal Register and the rule will take effect 30 days after publication. More information can be found here.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) Distinct Population Segment (DPS) consists of portions of northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho.
- information from Dennis Bragg included in this report.