The Biden administration is taking a step toward lifting federal protections for grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains, which could open the door to hunting in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho in the future, wildlife officials said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said on Friday that the governors of Montana and Wyoming provided “substantial information” that grizzly populations in the regions around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks had improved and threats had been reduced.
The wildlife service said it would now begin a yearlong review of whether the step of eliminating the safeguards was warranted. Once that review is completed, and if the agency finds the protections are no longer needed, they could be removed through a separate process that would include a period for public comments.
Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana had petitioned the federal government to lift protections on the grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, or N.C.D.E, the millions of acres in and around the state’s Glacier National Park. He said on Friday that he welcomed the announcement.
“After decades of work, the grizzly bear has more than recovered” in the ecosystem, Governor Gianforte said.
“As part of that conservation success, the federal government has accepted our petition to delist the grizzly in the N.C.D.E., opening the door to state management of this iconic American species,” he said.
In the 1800s, some 50,000 grizzly bears roamed North America from Canada to Mexico, according to the federal wildlife agency. But their populations dwindled from overhunting and trapping as European settlers moved in.
There were only between 700 and 800 grizzly bears remaining by 1975, and they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency in 1993 identified six ecosystems to focus on grizzly population recovery, including the Greater Yellowstone and the North Continental Divide. Currently, there are more than 1,900 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states and Alaska.
In 2017, the wildlife service removed protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystems, prompting conservation groups, tribes and individual citizens to sue.
A year later, a judge restored those protections in Wyoming and Idaho, putting the animals back on the endangered species list.
Environmental nonprofits criticized the decision on Friday.
“We think this step toward delisting is a step toward potential catastrophe for grizzlies in the northern Rockies,” said Joe Bushyhead, a lawyer for WildEarth Guardians, a conservation group that was involved in the lawsuit to restore the protections in 2018.
“The service should not confuse the growth of just two bear populations with recovery,” he said.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit group that works to protect species from extinction, said that removing the protections for the grizzly bear would allow states “to greenlight trophy hunting” of the animals.
“It’s disheartening that the federal government may strip protections from these treasured animals to appease trophy hunters and the livestock industry,” Andrea Zaccardi, a lawyer for the center, said in a statement on Friday.
“Grizzly bears have come back from the brink since receiving federal protection in 1975, but the recovery of these imperiled bears still has a long way to go,” she said.
Gov. Brad Little of Idaho said he had filed notice that he intended to sue the Biden administration over the delay to remove grizzly bears from the endangered species list.
“Idaho has continually demonstrated leadership in species management, and we expect the federal government to uphold its duties in providing clarity around issues that greatly impact a variety of activities on the ground in our state,” Governor Little said in a statement on Thursday.
Last year, his state petitioned for delisting the grizzly bear in the lower 48 states because, officials said, the bear did not qualify as a “species” under the Endangered Species Act.
In its review of the petition, the wildlife service said that “Idaho does not present substantial information that the grizzly bear in the lower 48 States is not a valid ‘species’ as defined by the Act.”