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USFWS Director: Why GYE Grizzlies Are Ready For Delisting

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe joins us to explain why his agency believes Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies are ready to come off the endangered species list.

Two hearings to take public input on removing the Yellowstone-area grizzly bear from the endangered species list are happening Monday and Tuesday. Monday’s hearing is in Cody, Wyoming; Tuesday’s is in Bozeman.

Ashe's agency put the bear on the list in 1975, and originally proposed removing them in 2007. A federal appellate court struck down that attempt. This time, the agency is more confident in its proposal.

Later this week, we’ll hear perspective from a Montana grizzly bear biologist who opposes taking grizzlies off of the endangered species list.

Eric Whitney: Why is now the right time to take Yellowstone-area grizzlies off of the endangered species list?

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe: There's broad recognition that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem are recovered. The best available science, in fact very strong scientific consensus, [says] that the population of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem have been stable since the early 2000s. And that is because the scientists believe the population has reached carrying capacity within the Yellowstone ecosystem. So it's a great success under the Endangered Species Act. The population is fully recovered and we need to recognize that and let the Endangered Species Act work on other species that need its protections.

EW: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made those same arguments when it originally proposed delisting Yellowstone grizzlies back in 2007. The federal courts disagreed and suspended delisting. What's different now?

DA: The court didn't disagree that bears are recovered. The court felt like we had not fully analyzed the potential effects of climate change on whitebark pine, and the possibility that whitebark pine nuts are a key food supply for grizzly bear. So it was essentially a question about whether the recovery would be sustained into the future, and that we had not adequately analyzed that threat. So we went back, we sat down with the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientists. We put together a program of scientific research to look specifically at that question.

That work has been completed and the conclusions of that work are, indeed, whitebark pine are in decline throughout the Yellowstone area, but that the bears have abundant additional food supplies, and bears as a whole are quite adaptable. And while this decline in whitebark pine has been occurring, the population of bears has continued to be stable.

EW: My understanding of the conclusion that there are other food sources bears can access to make up for whitebark pine is that, in finding those other food sources, doing so will bring grizzlies into more frequent contact with people and increase human-bear conflict and therefore increase bear mortality. That's not a sufficient concern to preclude delisting?

DA: Your understanding is that's what the scientists had said?

EW: If my understanding in incorrect, please correct me.

DA: No, they have not said that. There have been people who have made that allegation. That was not a conclusion of the scientists who have looked at the whitebark pine issue.

The conservation strategy which is the foundation of our delisting proposal is built around a framework of very strict mortality limits, particularly for female bears. [There is] strong consensus in the scientific community that female bears are the limiting factor for the population. So the conservation strategy is built around a framework to limit mortality strictly. And the mortality limits are built, again, off of a scientific framework that's been developed by the scientific team of the Interagency Grizzly Bear team.

So, there's great concern about mortality, and the conservation strategy anticipates mortality, but strictly limits mortality.

EW: Is there adequate budget for the monitoring that will be needed to keep track of that mortality and send up a red flag if there are problems?

DA: Oh yeah. This is probably one of the most well studied, well understood populations of animals in the world, and that commitment is going to continue.

EW: People characterize delisting as the federal authorities vacating their management of grizzly bears, and handing it over to the states, and some people are concerned the states have different agendas or different abilities to take action should it need to be taken. How do you address those concerns?

DA: Yes, we've heard people people, again, characterize a delisting as the federal government walking away from grizzly bear conservation, and I couldn't disagree more strongly.

Number one, we will have a 5 year, post-delisting monitoring framework in place for the species.

Number two, the federal government is never going to walk away, because the federal government is a significant land manager within the Yellowstone ecosystem. So we have the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they're all land managers within the Yellowstone ecosystem, so we're all going to continue to be at the table on a daily basis working with the states to manage and protect the bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

So the notion that we're walking away could not be further from the truth. We need to have faith in our state agency partners. They are competent, professional, scientific wildlife managers. And our federalist system is: states manage wildlife. They are the principal managers of wildlife in this country, so when a species is recovered under the Endangered Species Act, we hand them back to the states, and we have seen success in the past.

EW: People worry that state agencies will allow trophy hunting of grizzlies, and that that represents a threat to the viability of the species going forward.

DA: I do not agree at all that hunting would jeopardize the recovery of the species, because hunting, again, any mortality related to hunting would be subject to these strict limits on mortality that are contained within the conservation framework. So, hunting mortality has been essentially built in to this framework, this scientific framework.

I do understand that there are a significant number of people who believe that bears should not be hunted, and I understand that as a perspective. But I think the proper way to express that would be to simply say that you don't support hunting of bears, and that's a legitimate position for a citizen to take. But they shouldn't be taking it because they're afraid it will jeopardize the recovery of this species.

When you think about species in the United States that are hunted, like deer and elk and turkey, and ducks and geese, they are managed extraordinarily well, and most of them are at historic highs in the United States in terms of their populations.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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