WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2016 - The prospect of delisting the Yellowstone grizzly under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been high in recent years, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) appears closer than ever to handing the management of the bear over to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

“Progress is being made” to delist the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears, Serena Baker, public affairs specialist for FWS in the Mountain-Prairie Region, told Agri-Pulse.

The states within the bear’s range and FWS “continue to work on a robust conservation plan for the Yellowstone grizzly population and associated regulations to maintain a thriving, sustainable population of bears post-delisting,” Baker said. FWS is looking to “move forward on a delisting package… sometime early in 2016.”

After 40 years of ESA protection, the Yellowstone grizzly count is over 700 individuals – at least 200 more than FWS set as a minimum recovery level. Federal and state biologists are generally in agreement that Yellowstone grizzlies have fully recovered from the excessive hunting and trapping that resulted in the grizzly population in the region falling to about 100 in the early 1900s.

FWS Director Dan Ashe even put it in writing last September that the agency would proceed with a delisting, and hoped to publish a proposed listing in the Federal Register by the end of the 2015.

Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have also taken steps in preparation of a delisting. In January, the states released a draft plan to allow grizzly bear hunting – without limits – outside of the bear’s 19,300-square-mile management zone within the Yellowstone National Park. Inside the management zone, Wyoming hunters would be allowed to kill 58 percent of the bears allotted for harvest; Montana would get 34 percent and Idaho would get 8 percent. If the population within the management zone were to dip below 600, all hunting would stop.

Some wildlife advocates and scientists say the population is still too small to withstand hunting.

David Mattson, a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist that served on the federal government’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), says one of the grizzly’s food staples – whitebark pine seeds – has declined dramatically due to damage from mountain pine beetles in recent years. Cutthroat trout, another mainstay in the bear’s diet, have been killed off in the Yellowstone Lake by non-native lake trout and deteriorating spawning streams. Other food sources, like Yellowstone’s elk herds have declined, too, Mattson says.

What’s more, a record 59 grizzlies died, or were killed or removed in the Yellowstone region by the government in 2015, according to the IGBST’s most recent mortality report. At least 39 of the deaths were human-caused, with 14 being removed for conflicts with livestock and 12 for nuisance or property damage. With all these pressures, Mattson estimates the Yellowstone population has not increased since 2002, and may have even declined since 2007.

Another federal group, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, says a resolution is close. In the meantime, Montana and Wyoming will continue to compensate farmers and ranchers for livestock losses due to grizzly predation.

The latest federal action on the grizzly came in mid-January when FWS denied two petitions. One petition requested that the Cabinet-Yaak population of grizzly bears, found in Idaho, Montana and parts of Canada, be delisted, and the other requested that Yellowstone grizzly bears be listed as “endangered,” instead of their current status of “threatened.” Baker said the agency found no commercial or scientific data presented in the petitions that would warrant further study or changes in the ESA status for either grizzly population.


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