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Posted: 10:50 AM- BILLINGS, Mont. - Environmental groups today sued the federal government in a bid to restore endangered-species protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared in March that grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park had recovered from more than a century of persecution and could survive on their own. In April, the agency lifted the "threatened" status the bears had been under since 1975.

The environmental groups want the courts to reverse that action because they say the 500-600 Yellowstone bears in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana remain imperiled. Threats listed by the groups include changes in the bears' food supply due to global warming; residential and oil and gas development encroaching on bear habitat; and a grizzly gene pool too small to assure future viability of the species.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Boise, Idaho, is expected to become a test case on the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act.

Federal officials and some conservation groups say a victory for the suit's seven plaintiffs would hobble the species program and consume resources better spent on other threatened or endangered species. Those who want grizzlies to remain shielded portray the lawsuit as a challenge to the Bush administration's alleged strategy to remove wildlife as an obstacle to drilling, mining and grazing on federal lands.

Four smaller grizzly populations in the Northern Rockies still are considered "threatened."

Grizzlies are predators that can stand more than 6 feet and top 600 pounds. As many as 50,000 once ranged the western half of the United States. Beginning in the late 1800s, early European settlers shot, poisoned and trapped them until they were reduced to less than 2 percent of their previous range. When recovery efforts began in the 1970s, as few as 200 grizzly bears survived in the Yellowstone region.

Following a $20 million recovery effort, federal and state wildlife officials promise close monitoring of the Yellowstone grizzlies to make sure the population does not slide backward. And they say enough of the bear's habitat is protected - about 80 percent of the 9 million acres where they live - to make such a decline unlikely.

The environmental groups say the Yellowstone population needs to be linked up with at least some of those populations to shield against future declines.

"True recovery is connecting up these isolated grizzly bear ecosystems and sustaining a population of 2,000 to 3,000 grizzly bears. And right now, the delisting approach would create a system where that will never happen," said Doug Honnold, an Earth Justice attorney representing the environmental groups.

Honnold's claim was rejected by Christopher Servheen, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who led the recovery effort.

"There is no scientific basis for that number," he said. "The space available and habitat available for bears is sufficient to sustain a population of bears that is viable into the future."

Servheen said that while the threat of global warming is real, bears have proved over the last two decades that they can adapt to changes in their food supply. If that changed in the future, he added, wildlife agencies "could respond accordingly" and return grizzlies to the threatened list if needed.

Plaintiffs in the case are the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Great Bear Foundation and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

Several other conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, have supported the delisting of Yellowstone grizzlies.

"There will always be uncertainties, for any species," said Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation. "But the facts are there to support delisting and the regulatory plans are adequate to protect bears."

With the delisting, management of Yellowstone grizzlies is now shifting to state wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The states are free to hold public hunts. Servheen said no hunts are yet planned and future harvest numbers would be capped at a number considered sustainable.

Honnold said that if a hunt is scheduled, the environmental groups will seek an injunction to stop it. A similar tactic would be used to stop any major oil and gas, residential or commercial development proposed for the grizzlies' habitat, he indicated.

"Anything that will result in dead bears, we'll try to stop it," Honnold said.

He said a decision on the lawsuit could take 18 months to three years.