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Grizzly bears by YNP might lose protected status

Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area may again lose their status as a threatened species.

An Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee subcommittee recommended lifting federal protections at a meeting Thursday in Bozeman, Mont. The recommendation was based on data from a nearly complete report on whitebark pine. Pine nuts are a key food source for grizzlies.

Both the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee and the IGBC will make recommendations to the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), the agency responsible for deciding whether a proposal to again delist Yellowstone bears would be developed and published for public comment.

USFWS will likely make a final decision in late December or early January on whether or not to produce a new proposed rule. Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen said delisting would likely occur later in 2014.

“Our team will continue to monitor how grizzly bears respond over time and keep a close eye on the thresholds established to ensure a sustainable population,” said Frank van Manen, the team leader for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

There have been “surprisingly few conflicts” between people and grizzly bears recently, according to a report presented to state, tribal and federal agencies. Managers of the agencies responsible for recovery of the grizzly bear in the Yellowstone Ecosystem heard that piece of good news during the meeting in Bozeman.

In addition to reports of minimal conflicts from all of the states and national parks, managers also heard a report on the annual population status from the study team. Utilizing existing statistical methods, the population estimate of grizzlies in the Yellowstone Ecosystem is 629.

Because grizzly bears have yet to enter their dens for hibernation, all of the information presented regarding conflicts was labeled as “Draft,” but current data shows 25 known grizzly mortalities recorded so far, which represents less than half the total in 2012.

The bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem lost Endangered Species Act protection in 2007. Federal Judge Donald Molloy restored their threatened status in 2009, in part over concerns that whitebark pine trees were dying due to pine beetles and a fungus.

Despite being a poor cone production year for the already beleaguered whitebark pine trees, managers were told a record count of 58 unduplicated females with cubs were observed in the ecosystem this year. Especially promising was that a female with cub was documented in each of the 18 bear management units used to keep track of the bear population.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team also presented a synthesis of information on the effects of changes in bear foods on the health of the Yellowstone grizzly population. The team was tasked in spring 2012 to do this work.

“Our extensive analysis of existing research and monitoring has shown us that grizzly bears are resilient and resourceful in the face of changing food resources,” Van Manen said.

“Our findings indicate that the decline in WBP due mostly to mountain pine beetles is not a major threat to the future of  the Yellowstone grizzly bear population,” he said. “Data show the observed slowing of population growth since 2002 is  a result of  increased grizzly bear population density and resulting declines in subadult survival.”

The food synthesis research was presented to the YES members who then voted to conditionally support the findings, pending completion of a final section of the report and having all the research peer reviewed and published in professional journals.

To learn more about grizzly bear recovery visit: www.igbconline.org. To view reports by the IGBST regarding the Yellowstone grizzly bear population visit: http://www.nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/igbst-home.htm.

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