CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has informed Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead that he shares the governor's desire to end federal protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears.
Salazar wrote to Mead late last week, saying he expects the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies will finish their analysis of the effect of the decline of the whitebark pine tree on bear populations by early 2014.
Scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies have been addressing the whitebark pine issue, Salazar wrote. "All participants agreed that the Yellowstone grizzly population was recovered and that declines in whitebark pine do not threaten the future of the grizzly population," he stated.
The bears in the Greater Yellowstone area, which includes the nation's oldest national park and surrounding lands in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, originally were delisted in 2007. However, a legal challenge from environmental groups resulted in the bears being relisted in 2009.
Biologists estimate the Greater Yellowstone area has at least 600 grizzly bears. A federal appeals court last year ruled that more work was necessary to document how the decline of whitebark pine might affect the grizzly population before they could be delisted again.
The whitebark, an important food source for grizzlies and other species, has declined by 90 percent in some areas of the northern Rockies. Officials blame factors including a lack of natural forest fires and warmer weather that results in less snowfall.
Mead wrote to Salazar in May, saying that the gravity of the increasing bear population in areas of Wyoming around the nation's oldest national park cannot be overemphasized. Mead said bears killed four people in the area over the past two years.
Mark Bruscino, supervisor of the large carnivore section at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said Monday that scientists are increasing bear monitoring efforts, looking at survival and reproduction rates. He said it doesn't appear that the decline of whitebark pine will affect the Yellowstone bear population.
"Bears are the world's greatest omnivores," Bruscino said. "They live in lots of areas without whitebark pine, or anything similar to that, across the Northern Hemisphere, and they do just fine."
The Yellowstone grizzly population increased at yearly rates of 4 to 7 percent between 2000 and 2010, Bruscino said. He said growth has slowed in recent years as habitat has approached its carrying capacity.
"The Yellowstone grizzly population is doing fantastic, it's the wildlife management success story of the last 30 years in North America," Bruscino said.
Once the federal government turns grizzly bear management over to the states, Bruscino said Wyoming intends to allow sport hunting to manage problem bears and to manage bear numbers and distribution.
"We will probably never hunt large numbers, just because there won't be a lot of probably surplus mortality that could go into a hunting quota," Bruscino said. "But we will probably hunt some bears."
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Montana conservation group, had filed the lawsuit that blocked delisting of the bears.
Hannah Stauts, conservation associate with the coalition, said Monday that her group believes it's unknown how the decline of the whitebark will affect the grizzlies. "Certainly it's too soon to tell. There's a reason they're taking the next year or two years to look at whitebark loss," she said, adding that the analysis shouldn't be a rushed or pressured process.
Stauts said her group would like to see a grizzly delisting proposal it can support, but it's too early to talk about a hunting season for the bears when they're still on the Endangered Species List.
Wyoming State Rep. Pat Childers, R-Cody, has worked on wildlife issues in the Wyoming Legislature. He said Monday that he's heard complaints from his constituents that there are far too many bears in the area. "They would like something done about it," he said.