December 12, 2013 / 5:05 AM / in 4 years

U.S. wildlife managers urge lifting Yellowstone grizzly protections

(Reuters) - Federal and state wildlife managers of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area recommended on Wednesday that U.S. Endangered Species Act protections be lifted for the animals, a decision that would open the way for them to be hunted.

Yellowstone’s grizzlies, now classified as a threatened species, were briefly removed from protected status by the federal government in 2007, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the outsized, hump-shouldered bears had made a healthy comeback.

At the time, the number of grizzlies in the region had exceeded the government’s recovery goal of 500 bears, the government said.

But conservationists successfully challenged the de-listing in court, arguing that the government discounted climate changes that brought about the decline of whitebark pines, a crucial food source for grizzlies, in the Yellowstone area.

On Wednesday, members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee sought to reverse that decision, recommending a new de-listing after reviewing a report suggesting Yellowstone’s bears can be sustained by berries and a multitude of other food sources.

The Yellowstone River winds through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, June 9, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The panel estimated the grizzly population in and around Yellowstone, which spans parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, has now climbed to about 600 bears.

The recommendation is a formality and not required by law before the Fish and Wildlife Service officially decides whether to propose lifting federal safeguards from Yellowstone-area grizzlies, committee spokesman Gregg Losinki said.

But environmentalists criticized the recommendation, which they see as a precursor to de-listing and ultimately to sport hunting of the bears.

“The grizzly bear is arguably the most beautiful and powerful symbol of our wild heritage. It is vital they make a full recovery so they don’t slide back towards extinction,” Bonnie Rice, an official with the Sierra Club chapter in Montana, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Dan Ashe, now head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told Reuters in a 2010 interview that the Obama administration would seek to lift Endangered Species Act protections from both wolves and grizzlies in the Yellowstone area.

Wolves were de-listed in Idaho and Montana in 2011 and in Wyoming the following year.

Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Philip Barbara

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