Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly bears have increased from as few as 136 in 1975 to an estimated 717 today, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose removing Endangered Species Act protection from the iconic species. Grizzlies, like this one, have become popular tourist attractions, leading some to worry that delisting could lead to hunting individual animals that are well-known to visitors. (Thomas Mangelsen)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today began removing federal Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears, marking a conservation milestone that’s been four decades in the making.

The federal agency listed the Yellowstone grizzly as threatened on July 28, 1975 when there were perhaps as few as 136 grizzlies left in the ecosystem. Removing federal protection and turning management over to the states comes as the population stands at an official estimate of 717.

“The recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly bear represents a historic success for partnership-driven wildlife conservation under the Endangered Species Act,” Dan Ashe, director of the USFWS, said in a statement. “Our proposal today underscores and celebrates more than 30 years of collaboration with our trusted federal, state and tribal partners to address the unique habitat challenges of grizzlies. The final post-delisting management plans by these partners will ensure healthy grizzly populations persist across the Yellowstone ecosystem long into the future.”

Federal and state plans seek to maintain a stable population of about 674 bears — the average number between 2002 and 2014. They would be counted in a 19,279-square mile Demographic Monitoring Area with Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks at the core.

Gov. Matt Mead responded immediately. “We have been working for several years with the Secretary of Interior and the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service one-on-one, along with our staffs to get to this decision,” he said in a statement. “The proposed rule is to delist grizzly bears. Grizzly bears are recovered and have been for more than a decade. It is a great success story.”

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition said it would carefully review the plans. “Yellowstone grizzly bears are one of our country’s greatest conservation success stories and transitioning bears off the endangered species list must be done in a way that continues this legacy,” Caroline Byrd, executive director, said in a statement. “The delisting rule must adequately protect grizzly habitat, commit to reducing human-caused conflict, and promote connectivity. It must also require coordinated management among Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that maintains a healthy, stable population. If these critical issues are not addressed, we will use all tools available to ensure that grizzly bears remain protected.”

Bears outside the DMA won’t count toward the total. Officials believe their method of counting is conservative. Conservation focus will be on the Primary Conservation Area within the DMA but larger than the two parks.

Delisting will be carried out through promulgation of rules, regulations, agreements, notices, plans, a conservation strategy and other bureaucratic necessities that will undergo public review. The conservation strategy is a guide for monitoring and managing grizzlies and their habitat to ensure their persistence.

The federal agency has released a draft supplement to the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan and a draft conservation strategy.  

The conservation strategy includes agreements on mortality limits, including non-discretionary mortalities like the death of grizzlies hit by vehicles or removed for unacceptable behavior like repeated livestock killings or even stalking and attacking people.

Hunting likely to follow

In addition, removal of ESA protection would allow some “discretionary mortality,” including hunting, that would be regulated by the three neighboring states. The federal government through the USFWS concerns itself with the population-level view of the species and overall annual mortality. It will leave it to states to decide which bears might be hunted where and when outside the two national parks.

Federal officials said they’ve put national park leaders in touch with state game agencies to work out how park boundary bears that are popular tourist attractions might be protected once they leave Park Service sanctuaries

The same park-state relationship would help guide whether hunting would be allowed in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, a 24,000 acre preserve between Yellowstone and Grand Teton. It is U.S. Forest Service land that’s not part of either park and therefore under Wyoming Game and Fish Commission jurisdiction when it comes to hunting.

Federal officials also have worked with Montana wildlife counterparts regarding bears that might travel between the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Yellowstone. Such connectivity would help ensure genetic diversity in the isolated Yellowstone ecosystem population.

But it’s possible traveling grizzlies could be hunted or otherwise endangered along that journey. Specifics regarding protection of such bears were not immediately available on Thursday.

Federal officials brought the bear back from the edge of extinction by stopping hunting, establishing a recovery area around the parks and creating a team to coordinate, study and direct management. A 1993 recovery plan, revised in 2006, sought to ensure a well-distributed population whose mortality was limited.

USFWS will accept comments for 60-days after publication of a proposed rule in the Federal Register, which is expected in coming days. People can submit electronically at http://www.regulations.gov by entering Docket Number FWS–R6–ES–2016–0042, in the search box and then clicking on the “Comment Now!” button.  

Related stories:

Wyoming says grizzly hunting plan ensures bears forever

As grizzly hunt nears, emotions, voices rise

A record 59 grizzlies died in the Yellowstone ecosystem in 2015

States, Feds agree to at least 600 Yellowstone-area grizzlies

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. If the grizzly is delisted a conservation plan will be produced to insure the bear does not go back on the threatened list. If developed and implemented well, this plan could (in theory) be very helpful. However, it does not give one great confidence to read that the first thing the state of Wyoming wants to do is set up a hunting season. No wonder people don’t trust ‘state management’.

  2. HOW CAN I HELP KEEP GRIZZLIES LISTED:
    1) Get the Most Out of Don’t Delist Grizzlies Group: Make sure you see all the posts in this group. Go to Notifications and select ALL POSTS. Click on the three dots next to Notifications and select ADD TO FAVORITES. Add like-minded friends to this group.
    2) Sign Petitions (make sure to sign for every member of your family who opposes delisting):
    Change Petition (This is one to focus on the most) https://www.change.org/p/keep-yellowstone-area-grizzlies-pr…
    Force Change Petition: https://forcechange.com/ …/prevent-hunting-of-grizzly-bears…/
    Sierra Club: http://sierra.force.com/actions/National?actionId=AR0035686
    White House petition (may be subsumed by the Change petition): https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/ …/continue-protecting-griz…
    3) Share Petitions (with friends, family, on FB groups, in comments on articles, on Twitter, on Instagram). When possible, use hashtag ‪#‎DontDelistGrizzlies‬
    4) Contact celebs on social media, asking them to lend their voice or to share a petition. (See FILES for list of wildlife-friendly celebs and their twitter IDs/Facebook pages). When possible, use hashtag #DontDelistGrizzlies
    5) Contact outdoor recreation companies on social media, asking them to lend their voice or share a petition (remind them that Patagonia has already done this). (Need someone to put together a list of these) When possible, use hashtag #DontDelistGrizzlies
    6) Contact relevant officials. (Marianne Burdick is putting together a list.)
    7) Participate in upcoming social media tweet storms (Ida Bean is putting together)
    8) COMMENT on the USFWS proposal (Dawn and David Hatch are working on this). http://www.fws.gov/ …/03032016_US_Fish_and_Wildlife_Service_…
    9) Compile a list of NGOs leading the fight. (Need someone to do this)
    10) Add your own ideas to the comments and let me know if you want to volunteer to take any of these items on. Let’s save some grizzlies! #DontDelistGrizzlies

  3. The bears we see in Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks mean directly 155 jobs, as well as hundreds of other jobs the benefit indirectly from the growing ecotourism of the GYE.

    I have proposed and written about “A Firewall For Grizzlies” (google it) that should be the buffer zone of “No Hunting” the 5.9 million acres of the original Grizzly Bear recovery zone, this boundary will protect “the bears that we see” preserving the ecotourism industry.

    It is my wish that my friends in the environmental community will drop their futile effort for a total ban and get on board for the achievable 5.9 million acre safety firewall. I’m afraid that while they are reaching for the impossible, they well lose the achievable.

    It is also my wish, my outfitter friends will not be so greedy as to feel they have the right to destroy my income by selling our Teton Wilderness “revenue bears” which will give them one time revenue, but deprive the ecotourism industry of a resource that gives and gives, year after year as do the “bears we see” do!

    Being on both sides of the fence I get a lot of barbed wire in my butt.

  4. Don’t let USFWS’s patronizing announcements about accepting public comments fool you.

    When the USFWS service asks for public comments, they don’t mean you or me.

    The public comment process is designed to exclude the public from making public comments.

    From the press release announcing delisting:

    “The Service will be seeking review and comment by the public, other federal and state agencies, and independent scientists.” And “Please note that submissions merely supporting or opposing a potential delisting, without supporting, documentation, will not be considered in making a determination.”

    200,000 comments were generated in the previous delisting attempt. 98% were in favor of keeping grizzlies listed. The public clearly spoke, and the USFWS clearly ignored the public.

    If you oppose delisting grizzlies sign the petition at http://chn.ge/1L7E00Z

  5. Somebody please tell me what Grizzly Delisting will look like and function like in Wyoming . Especially the part about ” State management ” not involving projectile weaponry…

  6. As with Yellowstone and Teton parks so much in Wyoming, so too will the grizzly bear hunting opportunities and responsibilities be largely in Wyoming.
    Good comprehensive story. Thanks.

    Bruce McCormack