There are, by various counts, anywhere between 500 and 600 grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. That's the area covered by Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the Targhee, Shoshone, Gallatin, Custer, and Bridger-Teton national forests.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, believes that's a sufficient population to remove the bears' protection under the ESA.
“The grizzly’s remarkable comeback is the result of years of intensive cooperative recovery efforts between federal and state agencies, conservation groups, and individuals,” Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said today in announcing the decision to delist grizzlies. “There is simply no way to overstate what an amazing accomplishment this is."
One group not applauding that decision is the Natural Resources Defense Council, which condemned it and vowed to fight the decision in the courts and Congress if necessary.
"The government is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," says Louisa Willcox, who directs the NRDC's Wild Bears Project. "When you consider that they were nearly extinct 30 years ago, Yellowstone's grizzlies have made a remarkable recovery. But they've survived only because of the Endangered Species Act, and they're not out of the woods yet.The bears face grave threats that will be even more daunting if they're stripped of protected status."
According to the NRDC, Americans overwhelming oppose, by a margin of more than 200 to 1, the delisting proposal.
In opposing the delisting move, which is scheduled to take effect on the 29th, Willcox points out that the bears' habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem is being gnawed away by development, energy exploration, logging, and even climate change.
Under the delisting plan, once the ESA protections are removed the bears would be managed by the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. About one-third of the bears live outside of the park, according to NRDC, and could be hunted under the states' plans.
"Grizzlies are part of the natural heritage that is shared by all Americans," says Willcox. "Yellowstone and its wildlife have a special place in our history and in the hearts and minds of millions of people. If the grizzlies die out, it would be like Old Faithful running dry. Healthy bear populations mean that the land is healthy. It means that remaining pieces of wilderness will be here for our children and our grandchildren."