SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Native American tribes said on Friday they oppose U.S. government plans to strip grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area of federal safeguards, ultimately opening the way for sport hunting of them in northern Rocky Mountain states.
A federal-state-tribal panel that oversees grizzlies in and around the park, which spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, has said for the past two years the bear population had come back from the brink of extinction and no longer needed protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
But tribal members of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee have since joined with other Indian Nations to demand talks with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before it officially proposes removing bears in the area from the federal list of endangered and threatened species.
James Walks Along, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana, said on Friday his is one of 33 tribes that oppose handing management of the bears to the three Northern Rocky Mountain states, where sport hunting is planned.
Gregg Losinski, conservation educator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and member of the subcommittee, said the dispute has taken officials by surprise.
The Yellowstone area bear population today is estimated to number more than 750, Losinski said.
There were as few as 136 of the massive, hump-shouldered bears counted in and around the park when they were listed in 1975 as threatened, he said, adding that decades of research show the grizzlies are thriving.
“If you can’t de-list the Yellowstone grizzly population, there is no other species in the world that can ever be de-listed,” Losinski said.
Walks Along said in a statement that any hunting would offend tribal spiritual and social traditions.
“This holy mountain of ours, Bear Butte, is named because of the mightiness of the grizzly,” he said, referring to the Northern Cheyenne’s reservation in southeastern Montana. “We have a lot of history with this great animal and many stories. Grizzlies are like humans. We respect them for being like us.”
Hunting of grizzlies in the Lower 48 states has been banned for four decades.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Will Dunham