Is the grizzly bear population in and around Yellowstone National Park sturdy enough to get by on its own without any special federal protections? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service apparently thinks so, as it has announced that it wants to remove the species from Endangered Species Act protection.
While the National Wildlife Federation is in agreement with lifting the "threatened" status from grizzlies, saying state agencies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are ready to take on management of this species, not all advocacy groups concur.
At the Natural Resources Defense Council, Louisa Willcox says grizzlies won't be able to survive without ESA protection.
"We would love to see grizzlies taken off the endangered species list...when they're ready," says Willcox. "But that can't happen if the laws protecting grizzlies are weakened, and if they lose the few remaining scraps of land that support them. When those scraps are gone, neither the bears nor the wild land will be there for future generations."
So which group is right? That's a tough call. The National Wildlife Federation is the largest environmental organization in the United States and didn't come recently to this debate. Neither did the NRDC nor Willcox, a woman I've known for better than a decade, one who's extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the issues she becomes involved with.
Some background: grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem were listed as a threatened species back in 1975 because their numbers had plummeted to a few hundred. Today the Yellowstone ecosystem is home to some 500 or 600 grizzlies, a number that's been on the upswing in recent years.
But what concerns me about the bears' future is what worries Willcox: grizzly habitat is being jeopardized by development. Not just logging, mining and gas and oil development, but by urbanization as more and more folks decide they want to live in the ecosystem. Willcox says that if the bears lose their threatened status -- the Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a 90-day public comment period on its delisting proposal before it makes its final decision -- the public lands where grizzlies are now protected could be opened up to mining and logging and oil and gas exploration.
Plus, officials in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho plan to allow hunting of grizzlies once they lose their threatened status. And then there's the issue of efforts in Washington by some to weaken environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. What if grizzly numbers plummet in the years ahead, but the very laws that helped them get to their current population no longer are effective?
A recent Los Angeles Times story described the struggles grizzlies already face. According to the newspaper, 2004 was the worst year for grizzly bear killings since 1975, with 20 female grizzlies killed in or around Yellowstone and 54 in total killed in the Lower 48.
A dozen years ago a group of biologists announced the Yellowstone-to-Yukon initiative, a plan to construct, through land conservation, a wildlife corridor from Yellowstone all the way north to the Yukon. Such a corridor would enable grizzlies and other species to move back and forth and intermix their genes, rather than being destined to isolated "island" populations that would severely jeopardize genetic diversity.
While progress has been made in realizing this initiative, much work remains to be done. Can Yellowstone's grizzlies hang on if their threatened status is removed? That's a question I can't answer, but one that deserves much thought over the next three months while the Fish and Wildlife Service seeks our input on its proposal.