Grizzly Bear Protection Under Threat

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announces that grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park are no longer threatened. She's proposing to strip them of the special protections they've enjoyed for 30 years under the Endangered Species Act.

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Today Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced that grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park are no longer threatened. She's proposing to strip them of the special protections they've enjoyed for 30 years under the Endangered Species Act. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Grizzly bears once roamed across much of the United States. Interior Secretary Gale Norton says more than 50,000 bears still lived in the West when Lewis and Clark set off on their historic journey.

Secretary GALE NORTON (Department of the Interior): They reported numerous encounters with the grizzlies, including a few frightening episodes where they underestimated the speed and strength of these great animals.

SHOGREN: Over the next 150 years white settlers killed off most of them. The only pockets of grizzlies left were those in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Those populations grew dependent on garbage and food from tourists. That led to confrontations between humans and bears, and hundreds of bears ended up dead.

Sec. NORTON: By the early 1970s, there were believed to be less than a thousand grizzlies left in the lower 48 United States.

SHOGREN: That's when grizzlies were listed as a threatened species. Hunting, trapping or even injuring a grizzly became illegal. State and federal officials weaned grizzlies from garbage and removed sheep and cattle from areas where the bears live. Encounters between humans and the grizzlies dwindled, and the bear population doubled from a low of about 2 or 300 to more than 600.

Sec. NORTON: A population that was once plummeting toward extinction has now recovered. This great icon of the American West now has a promising future.

SHOGREN: There's now a period for public comment. Officials expect to take the grizzlies off the list sometime next year. Then state wildlife officials in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana will take over managing them. They will allow limited hunting and let ranchers trap and kill menacing bears. Senator Michael Enzi of Wyoming says it's long since time to give states control over the dangerous animals that are spreading out into more populated areas.

Senator MICHAEL ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): They are part of Wyoming and the West. They're as much legend and symbol as they are flesh-and-blood animal. And it's fitting that the West be allowed to manage the grizzly.

SHOGREN: Conservation groups that are popular with hunters, like the National Wildlife Federation, support the decision. But other environmentalists, such as Louisa Wilcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council, say the number of bears is still very small. Without protection, the majestic bears could still disappear.

Ms. LOUISA WILCOX (Natural Resources Defense Council): We would see more bears get killed. We would see less and less landscape that the grizzly bear needs. We would probably see a decline in the future. And under this plan, we will probably not be able to respond in time to rescue the bears if they really start to get in trouble.

SHOGREN: Both sides use the announcement to debate the future of the Endangered Species Act. Officials from Wyoming and Idaho say the fact that it's taking so long to get the Yellowstone grizzlies off the list shows that the law needs to be overhauled. But Jim Lyon of the National Wildlife Federation disagrees.

Mr. JIM LYON (National Wildlife Federation): Grizzly recovery is the best kind of proof that those who say the Endangered Species Act doesn't work at all are wrong. The nation's wildlife safety net for imperiled species does work.

SHOGREN: There are two other populations of grizzlies in the lower 48 states, both of them in northwestern Montana. Those bears will still be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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