Tuesday, November 15, 2005

ENV: Grizzly Bear Status

Yellowstone Grizzlies to Lose Endangered Status
By CHRISTINE HAUSER, The New York Times, November 15, 2005


The Department of Interior said today that the grizzly bear population that lives in the Yellowstone area has recovered and no longer needs protection under the Endangered Species Act, but four other grizzly populations in the United States are still at risk and will continue to be listed as threatened species.

Conservationists criticized the announcement, saying the proposal to remove the bear from the list opened up its habitat to encroachment and industry, and made it likely its numbers could go down again with regulated hunting.

In a statement announcing the proposal, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said three decades of conservation efforts had paid off. More than 600 grizzlies now live in the Yellowstone ecosystem, she said.

"With a comprehensive conservation strategy ready to be put into place upon delisting, we are confident that the future of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone is bright," she said. "Our grandchildren's grandchildren will see grizzly bears roaming Yellowstone."

When the species was listed in 1975, only 220 to 320 bears remained in the ecosystem. The animals were endangered by loss of habitat and high mortality from conflict with humans, the statement said.

Since the mid-1990's, the Yellowstone population has grown at a rate of 4 percent to 7 percent a year, it said. Grizzlies have occupied 48 percent more habitat since they were listed, and biologists have sighted bears more than 60 miles from what was once thought to be the outer limits of their range, it said.

Grizzly bears are generally larger and more heavily built than other bears. The males tend to weigh 400 to 600 and the females 250 to 350 pounds.

A conservation group said the decision was premature, and that the grizzly needed the continued protection of the Endangered Species Act to ensure it thrives in the long term.

"Taking away these protections will put the last remnants of wild places grizzlies need to fully recover and raise their young at risk from irresponsible oil drilling, unsustainable logging and sprawling development - all of which helped drive the grizzly to the brink of extinction in the first place," Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement posted on the group's Web site.

The proposal to take the Yellowstone grizzly bear population off the Endangered Species List will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday. A period of public comment will run through Feb. 15.

The statement said management plans for the Yellowstone area had yet to be finalized.

The Sierra Club's associate regional representative for its Grizzly Bear Project, Heidi Godwin, said in a telephone interview from Bozeman, Montana, that there has been enormous political pressure in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho for the bear to be taken off the list.

"There can be a hunt, which brings in a lot of money," she said. "They are getting a lot of pressure from politicians, backed by industry, to open a lot of land to logging, and then oil and gas drilling."

She said there is also a lot of pressure from off-road vehicle users and that industry to have access to the land that the grizzlies have been relying on. The problem, she said, is not simply whether "a bear can cross the road."

"It's the fact that they bring people into the heart of the back country, and with them come guns and picnics," she said. "When there is a conflict between people and a bear, the bear usually does not win."

The Sierra Club has been working on projects to educate people in the use of pepper spray and bear-resistant garbage cans.

"If they are taken off the endangered species list they will be given zero tolerance," Ms. Godwin said.

A spokesman for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Hugh Vickery, said by telephone from Washington that there will be no changes in the habitat restrictions, and that any development must be done in consultation with the service to determine whether the action would jeopardize the species.

Mr. Vickery also said that a comprehensive management plan has been completed that says how the species would be managed. "It guarantees that the species will not decline," he said. "It is designed to keep the species population increasing, or at least so that it would never become threatened again."

He added that the states have now taken over responsibility for the species, and that there could be hunting, within a maximum mortality rate set each year.

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