NRDC Says National Park May Become "Bare Of Bears" for Future Generations

WASHINGTON, D.C. (November 14, 2005) -- A new federal government plan to be announced tomorrow will revoke the Endangered Species Act protection that has successfully protected the grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park since they were driven nearly to extinction 30 years ago. The proposal would allow the majestic bears to be hunted, and throw open protected habitat to large-scale real estate and energy development.

"Federal protection is the only reason these bears exist in Yellowstone today, and they aren't yet ready to survive without it," said Louisa Willcox, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Wild Bears Project. "It is a tremendous success story, but the last chapters aren't yet written. We want to make sure there is a happy ending for both the grizzlies and the communities of greater Yellowstone."

Grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 because their numbers had been whittled to the brink of extinction. Between 50,000 and 100,000 grizzlies once roamed the western United States, but 99 percent of the bears are gone, and 98 percent of their habitat eliminated. Yellowstone's grizzlies have since rebounded to 500 to 600 bears, but conservationists warn that too many threats remain to safely strip the bears of protection.

"We would love to see grizzlies taken off the Endangered Species list -- when they're ready," said Willcox. "But that can't happen if the laws protecting grizzlies are weakened, and if they lose the few remaining scraps of land that support them. When those scraps are gone, neither the bears nor the wild land will be there for future generations."

Willcox said land that is home to the bears is being chipped away by development, oil and gas drilling, logging and road building. Delisting grizzlies would loosen restrictions on all those activities, accelerating the loss of habitat and increasing the likelihood of bear-human conflict.

It also would result inevitably in more bears being killed by humans, according to Willcox. Roughly 300 bears are known to have died from human causes since the bears were listed According to the federal government's own Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that for every known grizzly killed, at least another bear was killed illegally, which means the total number of bears killed by people since 1975 may be closer to 600.

The states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho all have plans to allow grizzly hunting when the bears are delisted. As it is, many bears already are killed by poachers. Willcox said legal hunting would only make matters worse. Many officials in the state of Wyoming are openly hostile toward grizzlies, and four counties have passed resolutions prohibiting the bears within their borders.

"We're afraid that delisting would result in open season on any grizzlies that wander outside the park," said Willcox. "Grizzly bears don't read maps."

Under the delisting proposal, the federal government would turn over responsibility for grizzlies outside the park to the surrounding states. About one third of the roughly 600 Greater Yellowstone grizzlies (or 175 total bears) live outside the park and a surrounding area known as the grizzly "Recovery Zone." If the population is delisted, any bears that wander outside this area would be at increased risk of death.

Today a grizzly bear is more likely to die of an encounter with people than of old age or natural causes. Last year was the worst year for grizzly killings since 1975, according to the Los Angeles Times. The 20 female Yellowstone grizzlies killed in or around the park last year were among 54 killed in the lower 48 states. Most bears are killed outside park boundaries near areas of growing human population. Bears are killed primarily because of conflicts with hunters or because they become nuisance bears habituated to human food and garbage.

A Chance for the Public to Speak

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal opens a 90-day comment period during which the public is invited to submit formal comments. Conservationists are urging Americans to tell the government that they oppose delisting grizzly bears until permanent protection is in place for their habitat and their long-term survival is secure.

"Grizzlies are part of the natural heritage that is shared by all Americans," Willcox said. "Yellowstone and its wildlife have a special place in our history and in the hearts and minds of millions of people. If the grizzlies die out, it would be like Old Faithful running dry. Healthy bear populations mean that the land is healthy. It means that remaining pieces of wilderness will be here for our children and our grandchildren."