Dueling attorneys for a conservation group and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered starkly different opinions Monday about the future of the grizzly bear population in and around Yellowstone National Park, if the bear is taken off the threatened species list.
Three 9th Circuit Court of Appeals justices heard half-hour arguments and rebuttals from each side more than a year after the grizzlies were returned to the list by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy.
The federal government is bullish on the bear's prospects, and state wildlife agencies from Montana and Wyoming have argued in briefs filed to the appellate court that officials are confident the bears won't go extinct if states are left to manage them.
Environmental groups say the bear's future is murky, and lifting protections now poses too great a risk to their survival.
Molloy's ruling, which resolved a lawsuit brought by the Montana-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition, highlighted the deaths of hundreds of thousands of whitebark pine trees over the past two decades.
The pine trees produce nuts that some grizzlies rely upon as a mainstay, and the number of trees has been falling. The reasons range from climate change to the presence of a destructive species of beetle, but the shrinking food source has pushed grizzlies to look for food in areas that increasingly bring them into contact with humans.
Allen Brabender, a U.S. Justice Department attorney, argued Monday that the bear's population has been growing from between 4 percent and 7 percent a year, and the bears will find a way to adapt without the whitebark pine seeds.
Appellate court judge Susan Graber said she saw a disconnect in the government's argument.
"You say they'll find other things to eat, so they won't starve," Graber said.
Brabender responded that the government didn't have to prove that the bears would find a replacement food source.
"Even in years without the whitebark pine being available, Yellowstone grizzly populations were still up," he said.
Tensions have been rising in the northern Rockies as the bear population increases and the animals spread into parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, where they prey on livestock, damage property and periodically attack humans.
The government agencies in favor of removing the bear from the threatened species list argue that an appellate court judge shouldn't act as a scientist in determining the whitebark pine seed issue, according to a brief filed by the state of Wyoming.
Longtime conservationist attorney Doug Honnold said the Yellowstone area is the "shining example" of bear conservation, but areas around Yellowstone concern conservationists.
"At what point," asked judge Sidney R. Thomas, "does the grizzly get to where it could be delisted?"
Honnold declined to give a specific number but said the U.S. Forest Service number of 500 was too low.
Four other groups totaling about 900 grizzlies _ all in the Northwest __ have never lost their threatened status. Full grown male grizzlies can weigh 800 pounds and stand 8 feet tall. Most are omnivores, meaning they eat plants and animals.
As many as 50,000 of the animals once ranged the western half of the United States _ striking terror in early European settlers who routinely shot, poisoned and trapped grizzlies until they were reduced to less than 2 percent of their historic range.
The Yellowstone-area population has grown from an estimated 200 animals in 1981 to more than 600 today.
In his ruling, Molloy said the government relied too heavily on population monitoring and failed to spell out what steps would be taken if grizzly numbers started to fall.
Honnold said after the hearing that the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is similarly concerned that the government won't keep tabs effectively on the grizzly population if it were delisted.
Montana wildlife officials argued in a brief filed to the appellate court that the rules that protect the species on a state level would match those provided by the Endangered Species Act, and that no single rule can ensure the bears will live.
"There are vast factual differences between decisions to list a species that is in jeopardy and declining ... and decisions to delist recovered species such as the grizzly bears in (Yellowstone)," the state of Montana wrote in an appellant brief.
"Once a species is delisted, there is no single regulatory mechanism that will assure its survival," it said.