State officials are excited about taking more responsibility for the Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly bears, but they say management will largely stay the same after delisting takes effect Monday.
The bears will no longer be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and state wildlife agencies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will assume more authority over the bears, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking a backseat. Officials from Montana and Wyoming said that while the change will erase a level of bureaucracy in their decision making, their focus will still be on keeping the population in good shape.
“Grizzly bears are recovered and they will stay recovered,” said Andrea Jones, a spokeswoman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Yellowstone’s grizzly bears were first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, when the population was estimated at fewer than 150 bears. The most recent estimate from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team says there are at least 690 now.
The agency proposed lifting the protections in March 2016, and a final delisting rule was published last month. Wildlife managers and some sportsmen’s organizations hailed the decision as a “conservation success story,” while some environmental groups and grizzly advocates said the move was coming far too soon.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the highest authority over animals listed under the act, and it will lose that status over the Yellowstone bears when the delisting takes effect. The agency will still keep a close eye on management of the bears over the next five years, but its authority to vote up or down on day-to-day decisions will disappear.
State wildlife agencies have long been involved in the day-to-day management of the bears, and they say the change will make them more efficient in dealing with whatever arises.
“We are able to have our on-the-ground folks respond more efficiently given one of the layers is removed in our ability to respond,” Jones said.
Brian Nesvik, the chief game warden for Wyoming Game and Fish, said the change will allow them to decide more quickly what they should do with problem bears — those that run into humans or chew up livestock. Options for dealing with those bears typically consist of relocating the bear, killing it or letting it be.
Nesvik said that in the past, states would recommend one of those options to the USFWS, and that agency would decide whether to follow the recommendation or do something else. He said there were times when their opinions differed, but said it didn’t happen often.
“There’s not a lot of times when our recommendation was different from what they approved,” Nesvik said.
He said the state doesn’t plan to make any changes in how it approaches those situations.
The big ticket change is that states can now consider having hunting seasons for the large predators, a major worry for environmental groups. But neither the state of Wyoming nor Montana plan to hunt bears this fall.
“We will not be talking about a hunting season anytime soon,” Jones said.
Grizzly research will largely be left untouched. Frank van Manen, the leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said funding from Congress is somewhat up in the air because of the normal budgeting process, but their work will still focus on keeping track of the Yellowstone grizzlies.
“We don’t anticipate any major changes,” he said.
Whether the delisting sticks will likely be a decision for federal courts. Several environmental groups and tribal governments have already signaled their intention to sue over the current delisting. Groups successfully sued over the delisting of the bears in 2007, and the bears landed back on the list.
Because of a provision in the Endangered Species Act, those suits can’t go forward until 60 days after the delisting rule is published in the federal register. Andrea Santarsiere of the Center for Biological Diversity said they have a complaint in draft form, and that it will be ready to roll when the time limit runs out.
“We’re just waiting for the 60 days notice,” she said.
The federal government isn’t worried by the lawsuits.
“We’re still pretty confident in the science we put behind this,” said Roya Mogadam, a spokeswoman for the USFWS. “We’re really confident in the decision we made.”
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