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U.S. Proposes Removing Yellowstone Grizzly Bears From Endangered Species List


There's a big fight going on over grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park. They've been on the endangered species list since 1975. And now, the federal government says the population has recovered. The bears can come off the list. But many people don't want to see that happen. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Yellowstone's grizzlies are among the most intensely studied animals anywhere in the world. And the federal government says it's clear that the bear has rebounded.

DAN ASHE: So it's a great story of success under the Endangered Species Act.

WHITNEY: Dan Ashe is the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

ASHE: The population is fully recovered, and we need to recognize that and let the Endangered Species Act work on other species that need its protections.

WHITNEY: But other wildlife biologists look at the evidence and come to a different conclusion.

DAVID MATTSON: I think if you put a little magnification on Livingston Peak, it makes everything pretty darn clear.

WHITNEY: David Mattson hands me a pair of binoculars to point out what he says is a big problem for bears and the government's plans to remove their Endangered Species Act protections. He's spent more than 20 years studying Yellowstone's grizzlies, especially what they eat.

MATTSON: And what you're going to see, if the focus is right for you...

WHITNEY: A lot of dead trees.

MATTSON: A lot of dead trees. All of those are whitebark pine.

WHITNEY: Whitebark pine trees are at the heart of the fight over protecting Yellowstone's grizzlies. Despite their reputation as ferocious killers, grizzlies here have long relied on seeds from whitebark pine trees as a primary food source, and climate change is wiping out the trees. A federal appellate court said the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to account for the loss of whitebark pine in 2005, the last time the agency tried to take these bears off the endangered species list.

Mattson says climate change is diminishing other important grizzly food sources, too. That means bears are roaming farther and taking more risks, feeding on things like elk and domestic cattle. And that, he says, means more bear encounters with ranchers and big-game hunters. More encounters usually means more dead bears. But the Fish and Wildlife Service says Yellowstone's grizzly population is robust enough to adapt to new food sources and survive.

PAT SIMMONS: I oppose grizzly bear hunting, even though I normally support big-game hunting.

WHITNEY: At a recent public hearing in Bozeman, local resident Pat Simmons was one of several people who worried that taking bears off of the endangered species list means it will again be legal for them to be hunted outside the park.

SIMMONS: Grizzlies are not killed for food, but solely for trophies. This is a disgusting human trait. Putting a beautiful wild animal on one's wall in their house or their business is pathetic.

WHITNEY: For those in favor of delisting the grizzly, the fight is all about states' rights versus federal government controlled. If grizzlies come off the list, federal wildlife managers hand their job over to states surrounding Yellowstone - Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Also testifying at the hearing was Stacy Philbrick, with a group called Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. She says it's way past time to hand control back to the states.

STACY PHILBRICK: It's not, we're going to go kill all the bears. It is, look at this; we brought them back from near-extinction, and now they're thriving, and yay U.S. (laughter).

WHITNEY: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to take public comment on whether to delist Yellowstone-area grizzlies until May 10. The agency is aiming to make a final decision by the end of the year. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.