BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Grizzlies could be hunted across parts of three states under a proposal by the Obama administration to lift federal protections for the animals that were first imposed more than forty years ago.
The administration on Thursday declared the Yellowstone-area population of grizzlies has recovered from near-extermination, in what U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe called "a triumph for partner-driven conservation."
Most grizzlies in the American West were killed by trapping and hunting in the late 1800s. Their low reproductive rate has made them slow to rebound.
Revoking the feared predator's threatened status would return jurisdiction over the species to state wildlife managers in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Hunting within Yellowstone National Park would still be prohibited.
Grizzlies once roamed much of North America and came to symbolize the continent's untamed wilderness. They now occupy only about 2 percent of their original range across the Lower 48 states, according to government officials and wildlife advocates.
Thursday's announcement came as conflicts between humans and grizzly bears have been on the rise, including six people fatally mauled since 2010. A record 59 bears were killed by humans last year, often by wildlife managers following attacks on livestock.
That's resulted in pressure to turn over management of the animals to states, in part so hunting can be used to control the population. But wildlife advocates declared the government's announcement premature and warned that it could reverse the species' gains.
"It's simply too soon to remove protections for grizzly bears," said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. She said the administration was taking a "narrow view of grizzly bear recovery" that ignores the Yellowstone population's isolation.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said the bear population would be responsibly managed by state wildlife officials. If a public hunt for the animals is pursued, the Democrat said, it could be done in a way that avoids killing bears that live on the periphery of Yellowstone.
"Yellowstone wildlife is treasured. We understand that. We'll manage them in a way that addresses that sensitivity," Bullock told The Associated Press.
A final decision on the proposal is due within a year. It could come sooner if state wildlife commissioners act quickly to adopt rules on how much hunting is allowed. Those rules are not mandatory under the federal proposal.
The federal government has spent roughly $20 million to $30 million on grizzly recovery efforts in the Yellowstone area, according to Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Serena Baker.
Protections would remain in place for about 1,000 bears in and around Glacier National Park and smaller populations elsewhere in Montana, Idaho and Washington state. Grizzlies are not protected in Alaska, where hunting has long been allowed.
Since grizzlies in the Lower 48 were added to the endangered and threatened species list in 1975, the number in the Yellowstone region increased from 136 animals to an estimated 700 to 1,000 today, according to government researchers.
Yet after years of growth, the grizzly population plateaued in recent years.
Dozens of American Indian tribes that view the grizzly as sacred also oppose ending federal protections.
Formal consultations between the tribes and the Interior Department are ongoing, although Ashe said the issue is unlikely to be resolved.
Federal and state officials said limits on how many bears can be killed will safeguard against a collapse in the bear population.
If bear numbers drop below 600, intentional killings through hunting and the removal of bears that attack livestock would be prohibited. Exceptions would be made for bears that threaten public safety. More hunting would be allowed when bear numbers increase.
Grizzly numbers rebounded despite declines in some of their key food sources, including cutthroat trout and the nuts of whitebark pine, a high-elevation tree devastated by bark beetles and an invasive fungus.
Environmentalists argue that those declines are good reasons to keep protecting the region's grizzlies.
The last legal hunts for Yellowstone-area bears happened in the 1970s. The animals were taken off the threatened species list in 2007, but that move was struck down and protections were restored two years later after environmental groups challenged the government in court.
Subsequent government-sponsored studies have shown grizzlies are able to adapt easily to different types of food.
Associated Press Writer Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, contributed to this report.
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