After 42 years on the Endangered Species List, the grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park have increased in number to 700 and will no longer be listed as a protected species, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Thursday.
The imminent ruling by the Fish and Wildlife Service would still ban hunting grizzly bears inside Yellowstone but would allow limited hunting in the three states outside its boundaries.
The bears roam both inside and outside the park, and their range has been expanding as their numbers have grown.
The decision would not affect the other major population of grizzlies in the lower 48 states, like the 1,000 that live in and around Glacier National Park in Montana.
The ferocious carnivore, known as Ursus arctos horribilis, numbered around 50,000 when Lewis and Clark explored the West in the early 1800s and are now down to about 1,700 nationwide.
In 1975, when the grizzly was placed on the endangered list, the figures were even grimmer: Only 136 bears roaming in and around the park.
In announcing the controversial decision, Zinke said long-term efforts to protect the grizzly have allowed it to thrive and grow.
“This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes: the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners,” the secretary said. “As a Montanan I am proud of what we’ve achieved together.”
The department noted that stable population numbers for the bear for more than a decade suggest that the Yellowstone area's ecosystem is at or near its capacity to support the animal.
The final ruling will give jurisdiction over the Yellowstone bears to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming by late July.
That will allow those states to plan limited bear hunts outside the park’s boundaries as long as the overall bear population does not fall below 600.
The Obama administration first proposed the change in March 2016. During the intervening 15 months, federal officials evaluated states’ grizzly management plans and responded to concerns generated by 650,000 comments from the public, including wildlife advocates and Native American tribal officials who are staunchly opposed to hunting grizzly bears.
About 125 tribes have signed a treaty opposing trophy hunting grizzly bears, which Native Americans consider a sacred animal.
Some environmental groups expressed their concerns over the decision.
"The ongoing recovery of Yellowstone grizzly bears is an undeniable example of how the ESA can bring a species back from the brink,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. “However, we are concerned over how grizzly bears and their habitat will be managed after de-listing. We cannot allow the decades of work and investment to save these bears go down the drain.
Rappaport Clark said the group would be "going through the de-listing rule with a fine-toothed comb, and we will hold federal and state wildlife and land management agencies accountable for strong stewardship and management of grizzly bears and their habitat post de-listing."
She said the group would also continue working with local ranchers and landowners in the region "to promote coexistence efforts between humans and their grizzly neighbors that can prevent bear mortalities and conflicts."
Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, called the decision "tragic."
“This outrageously irresponsible decision ignores the best available science," she said. "Grizzly conservation has made significant strides, but the work to restore these beautiful bears has a long way to go.”
Contributing: Associated Press
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