Leaked US Fish & Wildlife Letter: Grizzly Bear to lose federal protection

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Jim Peaco, NPS

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Jim Peaco, NPS


Author: Steven Shaw
Date: 12.08.15

UPDATE 12/8/2015, 5:30 PST:  Text updated with official NPS comment to TrailMob.com.

Yellowstone National Park -- Grizzly Bears are one step closer to losing federal protection as an endangered species, at least around Yellowstone National Park. A September 25th, 2015 letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe to the Fish & Game departments of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana states that “we have a mutually understood process that will allow the Service to proceed with proposed delisting…” The proposal appears to clear the way for hunting Grizzly Bears.

Grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have been on the endangered species list since 1975, when their numbers dropped to just over 130. As of 2014, the National Park Service estimates there are 674 to 839 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, with roughly 150 residing wholly or partially within park boundaries. That recovery has led wildlife officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to call for their removal from the endangered species list. The USFWS appears ready to go ahead with delisting before “the end of 2015” so long as conditions apparently already agreed upon remain in force. Those conditions as listed in the letter:

1.) “We have agreed...”  to manage grizzly populations at long term average population levels, meaning grizzly numbers would not be allowed to fall under 600 “unless necessary to address human safety issues.”
2.) “We have agreed…” the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA), or the area where bear mortality will be monitored and managed will be 19,279 square miles. Any grizzly deaths outside of the DMA would not count towards minimum numbers.
3.) “We have agreed…” on mortality limits within the DMA for females and males based on population size:

A. Below 600 grizzly bears no hunting would be allowed
B. Between 600-674 grizzly bears, up to 7.6% of adult females and 15% of adult males, may be killed by hunting or other methods
C.675-747 grizzly bears, up to 9% of adult females and 20% of adult males, may be killed by hunting or other methods
D. More than 747 grizzly bears, up to 10% of adult females and 22% adults males, may be killed by hunting or other methods.

FWS Director Ashe’s letter also states that “the recovery of the GYE (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) grizzly bear populations represents a tremendous conservation success story based on more than 30 years of collaboration…” The last estimate from National Park Service states grizzlies currently “occupy 22,522 square miles in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” That area is nearly 10 percent larger than the proposed Demographic Monitoring Area agreed up by the FWS and state wildlife managers.

A Yellowstone National Park spokesperson told TrailMob that they were not sent the letter, but have been expecting an announcement regarding grizzlies before the end of the year. After this article was initially published, Yellowstone NPS spokeswoman Amy Bartlett provided the following comment to TrailMob:

"The National Park Service is committed to preserving a sustainable wild grizzly bear population. We look forward to providing input on the Draft Rule and Conservation Strategy for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming."

The proposed delisting framework is being condemned by conservation organizations. “Once again we see Director Ashe cutting deals for political expediency instead of following the science,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Endangered Species Act is incredibly effective at recovering imperiled species, and will do so for grizzlies across their range, but only if they retain protections until the science clearly demonstrates recovery.”

“Recovery isn’t a math equation, it’s a geography question,” said Josh Osher, Montana Director for Western Watersheds Project. “The states’ tentative agreement with the Service fails to ensure connectivity throughout the species’ range and fails to address the livestock operations that are the root cause of lethal conflict for the grizzly bear.”

“It’s simply far too soon to remove protections for these grizzly bears,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Endangered Species Act has done a great job of helping to recover grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone, but isolation, declining food sources and an increase in human-caused mortality have caused the population to decrease from 757 to 714 bears just this year.”

Historically, biologists estimate 50,000 grizzly bears once ranged throughout the West, from Mexico to Alaska. Today, in the Lower 48 they remain only in isolated pockets such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, northwestern Montana and parts of the North Cascades. Currently there are an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 grizzlies in the contiguous U.S., including those in the Yellowstone Area.  

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