By Zack Strong, Natural Resources Defense Council
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a final rule to remove Yellowstone-area grizzly bears from the federal list of threatened and endangered species today. This means that the isolated population of grizzlies living around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks will no longer be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Instead, grizzly bears outside the parks will become subject to state management, which may include trophy hunting seasons and higher rates of lethal removal in response to livestock conflicts.
The rule is flawed and premature for several reasons. First, there are simply not enough bears right now. Best estimates put the Yellowstone population somewhere between 600 and 1,000, depending on the counting method. Because the population is isolated (i.e., not connected with grizzlies to the north), that is far too few individuals to ensure long-term genetic health. Until natural connectivity with the northern grizzly population occurs, scientific studies make clear that a minimum population of closer to 2,000 bears would be needed to maintain long-term genetic diversity. To address this, FWS has suggested that, as a last resort, it could always just capture and then truck a few northern bears south to introduce new genes to the Yellowstone population—an artificial solution that would undermine the very concept, and ultimate goal, of a “recovered” species.
Another serious problem is that FWS dismisses the potential threat of climate change. The rule discusses many ways in which climate change could negatively affect Yellowstone grizzlies, such as loss of food sources (like whitebark pine seeds) and shifts in denning time leading to increased conflicts with humans. And the grizzly bear Conservation Strategy developed by numerous agencies notes the “unpredictability of future climate and habitat changes.” Yet FWS still somehow concludes that climate change poses no threat to Yellowstone bears, now or in the future.
Thus, rather than cautiously developing a Conservation Strategy that addresses climate-related risks and uncertainties—or determining that, because of them, delisting is simply not warranted at this time—the agency instead seems to put its head in the sand and pretend these risks don’t exist. This unsupportable assessment fails to demonstrate how climate change does not threaten the “destruction, modification, or curtailment” of Yellowstone grizzlies’ habitat—a finding required by the Endangered Species Act.
The delisting rule is also flawed because it does not explain how long the Conservation Strategy—the primary and perhaps most critical document guiding future grizzly conservation—will even apply. The Conservation Strategy says that it “will remain in effect for the foreseeable future,” but does not define how long that is. Further, the tri-state agreement incorporated into the Strategy—in which Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming promise to adhere to numerous grizzly conservation commitments—allows any of the states to back out of that agreement upon simply 180 days’ notice.
Incredibly, FWS never even allowed an opportunity for public comment or peer review of the final Conservation Strategy—despite its central importance, and despite repeated requests from the public. This means there was never a chance for the public or experts to provide input on whether FWS’ regulatory commitments to conserving grizzly bears were adequate, as also required by the Endangered Species Act.
We recognize and appreciate the enormous amount of time, energy, and resources that FWS and many other agencies, organizations, and individuals have devoted to grizzly bear recovery over the several last decades. With the help of the Endangered Species Act and conservation efforts, Yellowstone grizzly numbers and range have significantly increased. And if these bears were truly recovered, we would support the withdrawal of federal protections.
But they are not. On the contrary, the bears continue to face a host of threats, from the negative impacts of climate change to increased conflicts with people to continued genetic isolation. FWS’s decision to delist Yellowstone grizzlies at this time is wrong, rushed, and contrary to the Endangered Species Act. While we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that the progress that has been made toward recovery is not reversed, FWS’s disappointing decision is a serious setback to the bears’ prospects for a secure and thriving future.