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Billings, Mont. • A deluge of opposition from dozens of American Indian tribes, conservation groups and some scientists is tying up a decision on lifting protections for more than 700 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National park.
Officials had planned to finalize by the end of 2016 a proposal to turn management of grizzlies over to state officials and allow limited hunting.
But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Regional Director Michael Thabault said it could take the agency another six months to finish reviewing 650,000 public comments that have poured in on the proposal.
Researchers tallied 106 Yellowstone-area grizzlies killed in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming during the past two years, often by wildlife managers following attacks on livestock and occasionally during run-ins with hunters.
That's the highest number of deaths in such a short time since the animal was listed as a threatened species in 1975. But Thabault said the death rate was sustainable given that the overall population has greatly expanded from 136 bears when protections were first imposed.
"The bear population has been increasing over time and those mortalities are within the bounds of what we've been considering," he said. "We expect the population to go up and down, but basically revolve around this (current) level."
Officials in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have been lobbying heavily to take grizzlies off the threatened species list. They say the animals have recovered from near-extermination last century and limited trophy hunting should be allowed.
Critics argue that hunts sponsored by state wildlife agencies could reverse the grizzly's four-decade recovery. Representatives of dozens of Indian tribes have signed onto a treaty urging the Fish and Wildlife Service not to lift protections for an animal that's regarded as sacred within many native cultures.
Federal officials have held talks with some tribal officials to address their objections. However, the government is not bound to make any changes based on the tribal consultations.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk raised concerns in November about the way scientists count bears, which could impact how many are made available to hunters.
But in December, Wenk's superior, National Park Service Associate Regional Director Patrick Walsh, signed off on a Yellowstone grizzly conservation plan that's required in order for protections to be lifted. The reversal came after the states agreed to use a conservative bear counting method going forward, in part to help prevent excessive hunting.
An estimated 50,000 Grizzlies once roamed much of North America. Most were killed off by hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries and they now occupy only about 2 percent of their original range across the Lower 48 states.
Through an intensive recovery effort, two large populations have been re-established around Yellowstone and in northwest Montana around Glacier National Park, which has roughly 1,000 bears.
Montana officials say the Glacier-area population is also recovered and should lose its federal protections, but no formal proposal has been offered.