Delist Yellowstone Grizzlies?

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is calling on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to act quickly and develop a rule removing federal protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, arguing that the iconic predators are thriving in the region.

Mead wrote this week in a one-page letter to Jewell that there is more than enough research and data to validate removing the Yellowstone area grizzlies from the list of plants and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. And he referenced a letter Jewell had written to him in September 2013 in which she said a decision on the status of the Yellowstone population would be coming by early this year.

“The recovery of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem is a conservation success story of our time,” Mead wrote.

“Wyoming has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and other state and federal agencies to compile and evaluate food sources data and the effect of those food sources on grizzly bear populations in the Yellowstone Ecosystem,” he added. “This work substantiates that grizzly bears forage on a broad variety of food. Science demonstrates grizzly bears are expanding — in population and geography — beyond recovery criteria established by FWS and the State of Wyoming.”

Mead pointed to a December report by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team — established in 1973 to collaboratively monitor and manage bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem — that found grizzlies will adapt and thrive despite the collapse of the whitebark pine trees in the region that serve as a key protein source for bears before they go into hibernation. The study team’s report was seen by some as a critical step forward to clearing the way for the bears to be removed from the endangered species list.

Mead’s letter is the latest in the ongoing legal battle over the status of the bear, which was originally listed as threatened in 1975. Since that time, population numbers have more than doubled to 600 in the region that includes Yellowstone National Park and portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

The growth in numbers has led to some fatal bear attacks on people in recent years; some Western state leaders have expressed a desire to allow grizzly hunts.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service won’t be in a position to recommend for or against delisting the bear until it completes a detailed threats analysis this fall, said Chris Servheen, the service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator in Missoula, Montana.

That analysis, which he said has been ongoing since December, is required by the Endangered Species Act to be completed before any decision can be made whether to delist a federally listed species.

“This is not a political decision, it’s a science decision,” Servheen said, adding that the threats analysis will “determine if we have the confidence to determine that the species is recovered.”