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Much as it did with the gray wolf, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the grizzly bear, beginning with the iconic bears of Yellowstone National Park. But are the bears truly recovered and ready for the state sponsored hunts that are sure to ensue with removal of protection?
As many as 50,000-100,000 grizzly bears once roamed the West, from the coast of California and Cascade Range in Washington and Oregon through the Great Plains, a vast and varied stretch of habitat that included much of Utah and Colorado.
Today there are none of these iconic symbols of the American West left in Utah and Colorado and no more than 1,800 remaining in the lower 48. The sad fact is we've hemmed grizzly bears into less than 4 percent of their historic habitat and they're scattered in a few isolated populations, like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, with few chances for genetic exchange.
Grizzly bears deserve better than that. Scientists have identified more than 110,000 square miles in the American West that could potentially accommodate grizzly bears, including Utah's Uinta Mountains, parts of the Eastern Colorado Plateau and San Juan Mountains in Colorado, the Grand Canyon, the Gila/Mogollon complex in Arizona and New Mexico and the Sierra Nevada in California.
These are places that are away from large population centers, have plenty of prey and enough sprawling landscape for these smart and omnivorous wanderers.
That's why I just co-authored a legal petition filed this week asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to meet its legal and moral responsibility to recover grizzly bears to suitable habitat across their historic range.
Returning bears to these areas could potentially triple the grizzly population in the lower 48 states to as many as 6,000 in genetically stable, connected populations.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself admits that the recovery plan developed in 1993 no longer represents the best available science and needs revision. That plan detailed strategies for six areas: Greater Yellowstone, North Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak, the Selkirk Mountains, Selway-Bitterroot and the North Cascades. To date, however, progress towards recovery has only been made in the first two areas where roughly 1,500 bears survive. With fewer than 100 bears total, populations in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirks are perilously close to extinction, while populations in the Selway-Bitterroot and North Cascades consist of scattered individuals.
Those numbers, coupled with the lack of connectivity between populations, offer no assurance that grizzlies can weather increased pressures from climate change, a growing human population and if protection is lifted, hunting.
Even in Yellowstone, where federal regulators are moving to drop protections first, a growing body of scientific evidence has raised questions about the stability of the iconic bear population.
The law clearly requires more of us. In passing the Endangered Species Act, Congress insisted that a species must be protected in each "significant portion of its range," even if the species is secure in other portions of its range. This makes clear that along with preventing extinction, the Act implores that we recover species to as much of their historic habitat as possible.
And only by returning grizzly bears to remote stretches of the Southwest, southern Rockies, Sierra Nevada and Cascades can federal biologists make sure that grizzly bears will be around for centuries to come.
They've been away for long enough. It's time for them to come home.
Noah Greenwald directs the endangered species program at the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore.