According the comments submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the public overwhelmingly opposes premature removal of the Yellowstone grizzly bear from Endangered Species protections. In March, the agency received over 200,000 comments on its draft delisting proposal from citizens from the US and many other countries, with over 99% opposed to lifting ESA protections. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.
Experts maintain that the grizzly, already eliminated by 99% of its former numbers in the lower 48 states, would have gone extinct in Yellowstone but for safety net of the ESA. Scientists are concerned that the population is still too small, too vulnerable and too isolated from other grizzly populations to survive in the long-term without continued protections. 269 scientists sent a letter to FWS in opposition to its delisting plan; signers included Dr. Jane Goodall and John Craighead, Sr., one of the pioneers of grizzly research in Yellowstone. They raised concerns that delisting would renew a grizzly bear hunt, which has been banned for over 30 years, and allow harmful development of wild country that the bear needs to survive. They also argued that to truly recover the grizzly bear, its numbers must be increased and populations connected between Yellowstone and Canada.
Because of its sensitivity to development, the grizzly bear serves a particularly important role as a barometer of the health of the Northern Rockies ecosystems. What happens with delisting and the future of bears will have major impacts on other wildlife, from big game to songbirds.
This proposal comes at a time of unprecedented threats from oil and gas and other development in the region, and during a wave of anti-environmental policies and programs by the Bush administration. At the same time, the state of Wyoming, which would assume primary responsibility for managing grizzlies after delisting, has announced that its plans to kill grizzlies at unsustainable levels. Because of its extremely low reproductive rate, a small (2-3%) change in human caused grizzly mortalities could lead to the extirpation of Yellowstone’s grizzlies in a few decades.
The diversity and depth of the response to the delisting proposal was particularly impressive, with comments and testimony submitted by local businessmen, ex- Park Service personnel, schoolteachers, ranchers, as well as members of the faith community who described the ESA as the grizzly’s Ark. Alerts by actors Leonardo DeCaprio and Jeff Bridges also helped pique public interest in an issue, which is at bottom about the future of the nation’s oldest park and one the most cherished symbols of American wilderness: the grizzly.
The new Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho called the grizzly “a massive flesh-eating carnivore” in his decision years 6 ago to ban grizzly reintroduction into important habitat in the state. Kempthorne’s decision on the delisting issue is not expected to favor bears. The decision will undoubtedly be challenged by conservationists in court.