Yellowstone grizzlies off danger list, and in the hunter's sights

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The Independent US

There is very good news from Yellowstone National Park. The grizzly bear population, which collapsed so precipitously in the latter half of the last century to the point where the majestic animal was included on America's Endangered Species Act, has recovered so brilliantly that the government is proposing taking it off the list.

Repeat the above and you also have the bad news. In the eyes of many animal welfare activists, the decision to delist the grizzlies - expected to be announced in the next few weeks - is tantamount to abandoning them to another period of dangerous decline just at the moment when their future seemed safe.

In other words, the success of the multi-year effort to rescue the grizzly in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem has triggered a furious controversy. What should happen next?

Anyone who has visited the park, located in the southern tier of Montana and spilling into neighbouring Idaho and Wyoming, knows that to see a grizzly foraging in the wild is still a thing of wonder. Sightings are special because the animals are still rare. By most estimates, there are now about 600 of them in the region. That is a huge improvement.

It was reckoned in the mid-70s that only about 200 of the big bears - they can be anything up to 10ft tall when standing- were alive and there was concern that one outbreak of disease could have wiped the animals out in the park forever. Now the population is be growing at a rate of about 7 per cent a year.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service argues that the job of reversing the decline in the grizzly population has been achieved and that retaining it as an endangered species is no longer justified. The public will be given a period to comment but the removal of the bears from the list should happen later next year.

One consequence would be to open the grizzlies to hunting again. Indeed all three of the states around Yellowstone have already drawn up proposals to allow hunting soon, albeit on an extremely limited basis. For some ranchers whose land abuts the park, the decision could not be more welcome. As increasing numbers of the animals have wandered beyond the park's boundaries, so the cases of attacks on cattle have climbed. Residents of those areas fear for their own lives too, especially the lives of their children.

And there are some environmentalists who support the decision. They include members of the National Wildlife Federation, based in Missoula, Montana. Tom France, a lawyer for the group, agrees with the managers of the grizzly recovery programme in Yellowstone Park, that it is important to respect to the logic of the Endangered Species Act - to delist species when they recover in numbers.

"The success in Yellowstone stands as a sharp rebuttal to those who claim the Endangered Species Act doesn't work," said Mr France. "America's largest carnivore, a species that requires millions of acres of habitat, has been recovered in one key area through the hard work of many people, organisations and agencies."

He and others point out that the Fish and Wildlife Service is not proposing to turn its back on the bears. Their population would still be monitored over a large area of protected acreage and the bears would be returned to the list the moment there was any evidence of the numbers slipping again.

But others are sceptical, not least because of the reputation of the Bush White House on matters environmental. "We could turn what has been a success - and the Yellowstone grizzly is a success - into something with a different ending with neglect," argues Louisa Wilcox, of the National Resources Defence Council.

Equally doubtful is Lance Craighead, a bear biologist in Bozeman, Montana. "I can't see any reason" to delist the bears," he said.