Today's the last day for the public to comment on a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem from the protection of the Endangered Species List. And more than 250 scientists are asking the agency not to take that protection away.
"While the Endangered Species Act rescued the Yellowstone grizzly from a tragic future confined to Yellowstone Park, we still have a lot of work to do before we can say this job is complete," says Lance Craighead, the son of renowned bear researcher Frank Craighead and the director of the Craighead Environmental Research Institute.
Dr. Craig Pease, who co-authored a research paper on Yellowstone's grizzly population, adds that, "The government needs to consider the best science. If you need brain surgery, you want the latest MRI technology, not a 1970s-era X-ray. The same is true in conservation."
In a letter submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the scientists pointed out that the bears' future is imperiled not just by the size of the current population, which is estimated to be around 500-600, but also due to threats posed to the whitebark pine and cutthroat trout, two key food sources for grizzlies.
"These foods, which drive the health of the population, are in trouble as a result of disease and exotic invasive species," points out Dr. Barrie Gilbert, a retired wildlife biology professor from Utah State University who also is a grizzly behavior specialist. "This means that the population is still at risk."
The letter also contends that the Yellowstone grizzly population is too small to provide a sound genetic pool and that the Fish and Wildlife Service delisting plan fails to protect grizzly bear habitat in the long run. With that in mind, the scientists ask that grizzlies be allowed to expand their habitat to nearby lands, such as the wilderness in central Idaho as well as the Glacier National Park/Bob Marshall areas in Montana.
One of the aspects that makes the delisting debate so polarizing is that no one really knows how many grizzly bears live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. A recent story in the Casper Star-Tribune takes a good look at this aspect of the debate.