BOZEMAN, Mont. - Yellowstone-area grizzly bears could be the next large predator to lose their endangered species protection. Members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee voted unanimously to take grizzlies off the endangered species list this week.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem covers 9,200 square miles across south central Montana, northwest Wyoming and eastern Idaho. It's home to more than 700 bears. Yet, it's not the largest population in the contiguous U.S. or even Montana.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem is more than 9,600 square miles. It covers Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Scientists estimate there more than a thousand grizzly bears in that area
Scientists have been waiting 18 months for the USGS to complete a report about how bears are doing with the decline in white bark pine. That report was presented yesterday at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting in 2007, but legal challenges kept that one from going through.
The 9th Circuit of Appeals overturned the proposal in 2009, citing there wasn't enough information about how the decline in white bark would not affect the grizzly population.
Scientists have been waiting 18 months for the USGS to complete a report about how bears are doing with the decline in white bark pine. That report was presented Wednesday at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting.
"There's no measurable negative effect on grizzly bears, either at the individual level or the population level with declines in white bark," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen.
Servheen says the white bark pine has been on the decline largely due to pine beetle for the last 12 years but says the bears are looking to other food sources.
"Bears are just as well off as ever. In fact, this year in 2013, saw greatest number of females with cubs ever counted in the Yellowstone ecosystem," says Servheen.
Servheen says the report reinforced what they already knew and while he says that's vindicating, it's taken a long time to get to where they are now.
Conservation groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition tell us they want to see what a new delisting proposal looks like before they make any conclusions.
"We'll evaluate whatever is proposed at the appropriate time," says Greater Yellowstone Coalition Conservation Director Scott Christensen.
Christensen says it's important to recognize how far we've come over the last 30 years, both in terms of numbers and distribution of Grizzly bears.
"We're in a way different time period than we were in the early '80s when the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was formed and there were probably 200 or less bears in the region," Christensen says.
Christensen explains, if the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes delisting, they are a number of factors they'll be paying close attention to. He tells us, they'll want the proposal to be better than the one the agency put forth in 2007.
Christensen says the Greater Yellowstone Coalition also wants to see language in the proposal that aims to reduce conflict between people and bears, and building social tolerance in places where bears are beginning to show up as they expand and move across the landscape.
He says they're hoping the proposal puts protections in place for grizzlies' core habitat and includes language surrounding issues of connectivity.
"Making sure bears can connect from this population up to the crown of the continent population and vice versa," says Christensen.
Christensen says as wildlife agencies move forward, it will be important to work together.
We asked Servheen about the grizzly bears' Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, that area has around 300 more bears than the Yellowstone area. He tells us that is the area where they will next look at possibly delisting grizzlies.
We listened in on a conference call this morning the Union of Concerned Scientists hosted. Scientists brought up a number of concerns regarding the USGS grizzly bear study team's report. They argue the report was put out prematurely and say some of their research techniques are flawed.
Some conservation groups argue the availability of white bark pine nuts has a much greater impact on the grizzly population than researchers are leading on.
So what's next now that the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee voted to end federal protections for grizzlies in the Yellowstone area? Federal wildlife managers will begin compiling data and start work on the formal proposal for delisting. After that, the measure goes up for public comment, the earliest that could happen is the middle of next year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will review the comments following the public comment period and then make a final decision.