BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Fewer threatened grizzly bears are being killed in and around Yellowstone National Park, and scientists said Wednesday their numbers appear to be holding stable as officials consider lifting protections for the animals.
If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service eliminates protections, it would open the door to limited hunting in the Yellowstone region of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
At least 757 bears inhabit the region, although researchers say that's a highly conservative figure.
During a Wednesday meeting of state and federal wildlife agencies in Montana, scientists said a new counting method indicates roughly 1,000 grizzlies in the Yellowstone region, with the population growing zero to 2 percent annually.
Twenty bears have been reported killed or removed from that population so far this year, said Frank van Manen, a grizzly researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey.
By comparison, a record 56 grizzlies were reported killed or removed in 2012, and 29 last year.
Most bears die following conflicts with humans. Those range from hunters shooting bears in self-defense to wildlife agents capturing and killing bears that attack livestock or damage property.
In a case earlier this month outside Yellowstone, wildlife officials euthanized a 28-year-old bear that tried to get into a storage building containing horse feed.
This week, two young bears were captured and later released after they raided residents' apple trees in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the park's north entrance. The bears were relocated in hopes of heading off further problems as food sources dwindle with the approach of winter, Montana officials said Wednesday.
Conflicts had been steadily increasing earlier this decade, including several high-profile instances of bears attacking and killing tourists and hikers. But overall conflicts have been easing since 2012.
"Things are looking really good for the second year in a row," van Manen said. "This is where we'd rather be, with fewer (bear) mortalities, fewer conflicts with hunters, fewer issues with bears getting into garbage or conflicts with livestock."
However, van Manen cautioned that human run-ins with bears are still up over the long term.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision is pending on whether the population has recovered enough to revoke the animals' threatened species status.
Grizzlies received federal protections in 1975 after getting wiped out across much of their historical range.
The Yellowstone population has slowly rebounded and the three-state region now hosts one of the largest concentrations of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states. Their range covers 19,000 square miles centered on the high country of Yellowstone and surrounding national forests.
The bears temporarily lost protections in 2007 but got them back two years later after environmental groups successfully challenged the decision in federal court.
A judge ruled in part that the Fish and Wildlife Service had not fully considered the potential harm to grizzlies from the loss of a key food source, the nuts of high-elevation white bark pine trees, due to climate change.
Since then, government scientists have issued studies showing the bears have a varied diet and are not dependent on white bark pine. The matter is now in the hands of Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe, said Chris Servheen, the agency's grizzly recovery coordinator.