NWF Defends Decision to Delist Yellowstone Grizzles

Court set to decide whether to repeal or uphold prior judge’s decision to put grizzlies back on the ESA list.

09-02-2010 // Aislinn Maestas
Bear grizzly

Three years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finalized its decision to remove the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone area from the list of federally protected endangered species. Having met all the recovery goals, and with strong state plans in place to take over grizzly management, FWS declared Yellowstone grizzlies to be an Endangered Species Act success story.

The National Wildlife Federation and its affiliate, the Montana Wldlife Federation, lauded the decision to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Having worked for 40 years on grizzly bear conservation, staff at NWF’s Northern Rockies and Prairies Regional Center are proud of the role they played in the bear’s recovery.

“It is an incredible feeling to know that your work helped bring a species back from the brink of extinction,” said NWF Regional Executive Director Tom France. “And to do it for an animal as iconic the grizzly made it even more amazing.”

According to France “grizzly bear recovery is challenging because the species requires large landscapes, occur at low population densities and, in some areas, pose threats to economic interests such as sheep grazing.”

Grizzly decline in the West

The decline of grizzly bears in the American West is an all too familiar story. Before the arrival of Europeans to North America, grizzly bear populations thrived throughout the western United States. In the lower 48 alone it is estimated that there were some 50,000 grizzly bears. Beginning in the late 1800s, however, and continuing through the 1960s, grizzly bears were extirpated throughout most of their historical range.

“Humans managed to eliminate grizzlies from 98 percent of their former range in less than a century,” said NWF’s Senior Wildlife Biologist Sterling Miller. “Today, the greater Yellowstone area is one of the last two remaining large core habitat areas with grizzlies in the lower 48 states, although the potential exists to reestablish significant populations in at least two other areas currently without grizzlies.”

An ESA success story

To reverse the trend of grizzly decline in the U.S, the species was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1975. At the time of listing, there were about 250 bears in the Yellowstone area. Today, after three decades of intensive recovery efforts, the Yellowstone grizzly bear population has grown to more than 600 bears.

"The key to grizzly bear recovery was cooperation,” said France. “We had state and federal agencies working cooperatively together and with conservation groups and individuals toward the shared objective of recovery. The cooperative model established by these groups is an important template for recovery that should be applied for other species listed under the ESA.”

When Yellowstone’s grizzly bears finally reached (and in many cases surpassed) the goals laid out in the recovery plan, National Wildlife Federation joined in the celebration.

“Right when this was happening, some opponents of the ESA were arguing that the Endangered Species Act did not work,” said France. “So it was great being able to come back at them with this great Endangered Species Act success story.”

Defending the decision

While some conservation groups agreed with the National Wildlife Federation and the Fish and Wildlife Service that grizzlies were ready to come off the endangered species list, other conservation groups opposed the decision. The battle ended up in a Montana federal court where a judge recently relisted the grizzly in the Yellowstone area based on his concerns over potential long-term threats to a food source used by grizzly bears during some years. This decision has been appealed by the Fish and Wildlife Service with support from NWF. The 9th Circuit court will now decide whether to repeal or uphold the prior judge’s decision to put the grizzly back on the ESA list.

“I’ve worked as a research biologist and grizzly bear advocate for 30 years, and I believe that it is in the best interest of the ESA and of grizzly bears for the species to be delisted in the Yellowstone area,” said Miller. “Keeping a species listed because of speculation that something dire might happen in the future is a prescription that sets too high a bar for recovery and threatens the kind of interagency cooperation that has worked so well for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. We should turn our focus toward reestablishing grizzly populations in large areas of suitable habitat such as the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana and central Idaho and in maintaining the small populations in key linkage areas such as in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems.”

In NWF’s recently submitted brief supporting the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies, NWF stated that “overturning the delisting decision in the face of this success and in the face of this effort will frustrate the ESA’s most central goal. It will also undermine the efforts of agencies, non-governmental organizations, and people across the country as they work to recover the other 1, 487 species of listed plants and animals in the United States.”

NWF’s affiliate in Montana agreed: “Throughout the recovery, Montanans have supported restoring the grizzly bear. That means hunters along with landowners, wildlife watchers, hikers and anyone who loves Montana have been a part of this remarkable success. Our greatest fear though, is that continued litigation and constant shifting goals will undermine the Endangered Species Act, and reduce the tolerance for these magnificent animals,” said Ben Lamb, Conservation Director for State and Natioanl Issues with the Montana Wildlife Federation.

For more information on grizzly bears, check out our wildlife gallery.

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