updated 3/23/2006 9:41:38 AM ET 2006-03-23T14:41:38

A leading organization of wildlife scientists on Wednesday announced its support for lifting Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone area.

The Wildlife Society joins the National Wildlife Federation, which had earlier voiced support for the plan.

But the plan is opposed by more than 250 scientists and researchers who sent a letter Monday to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to oppose "delisting" the bears.

"This is to make sure that the public understands there is a debate within the scientific community. And many scientists and biologists are very much behind delisting because we really have achieved a success for bears in Yellowstone," Tom France, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Northern Rockies office, said in an interview.

"We're just trying to balance the record," he added.

In a position statement The Wildlife Society said that steps taken by state and federal agencies, such as the development of an overarching conservation strategy, "represent an acceptable framework" for regulation and management post-delisting.

The Wildlife Society represents 7,000 to 8,000 wildlife biologists, the group's executive director, Michael Hutchins, said. There were not sharp divisions among the group over whether to support delisting, he said. Scientists' concerns were incorporated into the development of the position statement, and all members had an opportunity to review and comment on it before it was finalized and approved, he said.

The statement of support followed a "very detailed review" of the government delisting plan, Hutchins said. It includes several caveats, including urging involved agencies to fully implement the conservation strategy and encouraging the Fish and Wildlife Service to place renewed attention on other grizzly recovery areas in the country.

Monday marked the end of a public comment period on a Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to delist Yellowstone-area grizzlies. The agency in November said the population had grown at a rate of 4 percent to 7 percent a year since the mid-1990s, was estimated at more than 600 animals and considered recovered.

More than 250 scientists and researchers signed onto a letter, dated Monday, that said a proposal was premature. They argued, among other things, that there are inadequate habitat protections and too few bears to merit removing federal protections.

Names included on the letter were Jane Goodall and bear researchers John Craighead Sr. and Chuck Jonkel.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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