WASHINGTON — Noting that the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone area has thrived in recent years, the Bush administration on Tuesday announced that it plans to remove federal protections for the animals in the areas around the national park.
“A population that was once plummeting towards extinction is now recovered,” Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in making the announcement. “These bears are now no longer endangered” and should be removed from the Endangered Species Act listing.
The Interior Department, through the Fish and Wildlife Service, implements the Endangered Species Act.
“We are sure that these bears will have the habitat that they need,” Norton added.
Federal wildlife officials estimate that more than 600 grizzly bears live in the region surrounding Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. They also describe as healthy an annual growth rate over the past decade of 4 to 7 percent.
Those numbers represent a significant recovery. Only 200 or 250 grizzlies were in that region in 1975, when grizzly bears in the lower 48 states were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Once in the hundreds of thousands, the bear population dwindled in the West early in the last century in large part because of hunting and destruction of the animals’ habitat.
If the grizzlies are removed from the list, the three states would assume management responsibilities from federal wildlife officials and have greater flexibility in dealing with bears. Stripping the bears of protection could eventually clear the way for hunting grizzlies in that region.
While grizzlies inside and outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks would be delisted, bears within the parks would remain federally protected and could not be hunted.
Four other grizzly populations in other parts of the lower 48 states will continue to be protected as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Alaskan grizzly bears, which number about 30,000, were never listed under the act.
The Interior Department on Tuesday also announced a 90-day comment period before a final decision is made.
But any delisting could be delayed by a court battle, since some conservation groups oppose the move.
Tom France, regional director for the National Wildlife Federation, said his organization believes removing bears from federal protection in the Yellowstone area is long overdue.
“All of the recovery goals for grizzly bears in Yellowstone have been met or exceeded,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
“A sound foundation is in place to ensure that grizzlies continue to thrive after they are released from the emergency room care of the Endangered Species Act,” he added. “Part of that foundation is extensive monitoring so that if problems arise, corrective action can be taken.”
But other environmentalists say the bears still do not have adequate protections to ensure their long-term success.
“The agencies are in a state of denial about what’s happening on the landscape,” said Louisa Willcox, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Willcox said bear habitat is being chipped away by development, oil and gas drilling, logging and road building. She feared that delisting grizzlies would loosen restrictions on those activities, reducing habitat further and increasing the likelihood of bear-human conflicts.
Republicans call for changes
Three Republican senators who attended the Interior news conference Tuesday used the event to call for changes in the endangered species law that would enable more animals to be removed from the list. The House passed a bill in September that would lessen the government’s role in protecting plant and animal habitat.
Less than 20 species have been removed from the endangered list since the law was signed by President Nixon was signed in 1973.
“This is the exception, not the rule to the Endangered Species Act,” Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said of removing the bears form the list.
Sens. Mike Enzi and Craig Thomas of Wyoming, both Republicans, also called for changes to the law.
Comments on the grizzly plan are being accepted through Feb. 16. They may be emailed to FW6_grizzly_yellowstone@fws.gov
The proposal and background are online at
MSNBC.com's Miguel Llanos and The Associated Press contributed to this report.