The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a public debate Monday over its plan to lift federal protections from grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area.
SALMON, Idaho The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a public debate Monday over its plan to lift federal protections from grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area, a measure that would pave the way for hunting of the bears in surrounding Western states.
Millions of tourists visit Yellowstone annually hoping to see the outsize, hump-shouldered bears that were hunted and trapped to near extinction before being classified in 1975 as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In the past three decades, the number of grizzlies in Yellowstone and surrounding areas -- eastern Idaho, southern Montana and northwest Wyoming -- has risen to more than 600 from 136, prompting the government to propose removing that population from the list of protected wildlife.
Public hearings on the proposal began Monday in Montana and will conclude Thursday in Idaho. If the measure is approved, which could happen by the end of the year, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming will oversee management of grizzlies that have ventured outside the park.
Each state has crafted a plan to allow hunting of some of those grizzlies under certain conditions, a practice banned for more than 30 years. Each state would have the authority to kill bears considered chronic nuisances to humans or livestock.
Grizzlies, like gray wolves, have been at the center of controversy in Western states ever since they came under federal protection.
The plan to lift the grizzlies' federal protection is opposed by some powerful environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, which say it is premature to remove the bears' safety net because their long-term success is still not assured.
The outcry has reverberated in ranching communities in Montana and Wyoming, where rising bear numbers are paralleled by more encounters with people and livestock.
"When they start interfering with your livelihood, there are too many of them," said Gus Vaile, a Montana cattle rancher who last year lost a handful of cows and calves to grizzlies.
John Emmerich, assistant wildlife division chief with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said grizzlies are less popular with those who live near them while "people that don't live here think they're the greatest thing since sliced bread."
The Humane Society of the United States views the bears from the latter vantage point and is "strongly opposed to the notion of hunting grizzly bears," said John Grandy, senior vice president for wildlife.
"Being the largest predator, they are peculiarly vulnerable to sport hunting," Grandy said.
"Literally thousands and thousands" from across the nation are expected to apply for licenses to hunt grizzlies when Wyoming offers a season, which could happen as early as next year, said Dave Moody, the state's trophy game coordinator.
The excitement already is building among sportsmen. "I'd love to shoot one," said Dick Hadlock, an Idaho hunter.