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Thousands wrote in on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan for removing Endangered Species Act protections from the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly bears before a deadline Tuesday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 5,400 comments had been submitted to the agency online. USFWS spokeswoman Serena Baker said officials will sort and review the comments in the coming months. Some of them will be addressed in the final delisting proposal.

The USFWS hopes to have a final proposal out by the end of the year. Delisting the bear would transfer management responsibility to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and allow some discretionary killing of bears. All three states have expressed interest in having hunting seasons on the bears, and USFWS is requiring that they submit plans for state management to be included in the final proposal.

Grizzlies were first listed as threatened in 1975, when there were an estimated 136 in the Yellowstone region. There are now more than 700. USFWS delisted the bear in 2007, but a legal challenge from environmental groups landed the bears back on the list.

In March, the USFWS released the draft delisting rule and conservation strategy for the Yellowstone region grizzly bears. It drew support from the three states and some hunters’ groups. It also drew considerable scorn from grizzly bear advocates and some environmental groups. Online petitions opposing the idea sprang up, with at least one topping 100,000 signatures.

Grizzly advocates held a telephone press conference Tuesday morning, arguing that it is premature to remove protections for the bears.

“We think that we really need more time to understand what’s happening with grizzly bears on the ground,” said Bonnie Rice, a senior representative for the Sierra Club.

David Mattson, a retired government biologist, said the proposal ignored losses in important grizzly food sources and relied on flawed science driven by political pressure to remove the protections.

“What I see is a population that is incredibly vulnerable,” Mattson said.

Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, said delisting should wait until important migration corridors for the grizzly bear have been protected. Connectivity between the bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide — which includes Glacier National Park — is believed by many to be necessary for the long-term viability of the bears.

Hockett said bear managers haven’t ensured that can happen yet, and he worries that protecting livestock grazing on public land would be deemed more important than letting bears travel between the two places if grizzlies are delisted.

“We’re afraid that those conflicts will take precedence,” Hockett said.

On the other side, Nick Gevock, the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said state wildlife agencies have shown that they can manage species and trusts that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks can handle the burden of managing grizzly bears. He added that the recovery of the bears shows the power of the Endangered Species Act.

“This is a sign that the Endangered Species Act works,” Gevock said.

Baker said the USFWS will consider opening another comment period later this year after the states submit their management plans. Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will take an initial vote on a set of grizzly hunting regulations later this week.

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Michael Wright can be reached at or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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