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Much of that reduced mortality has come from minimizing the interactions between bears and humans. Sheep-grazing rights once brought lots of food into grizzly territory on National Forest land, for example, but grazing allotments have been all but phased out. Garbage dumps and piles of entrails left behind by elk hunters lure grizzlies into areas where they are more likely to be hit by cars or run into people who have to kill them in self-defense. But again, many dumps have been shut down, and the Wyoming game and fish department is working with hunting groups to make sure kills and their related waste products aren't left lying about.
None of those protections are likely to go if the grizzly is delisted, says the FWS. What may vanish are the strict limits on timber cutting, mineral exploration and other development that the Endangered Species Act requires. Still, that doesn't mean the bears would find themselves in a free-fire zone. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have no immediate plans for a grizzly-hunting season. If one is established, says France, "it's going to be like the ones they set up for bighorn sheep and moose: very few permits and a very close monitoring of the population." Indeed, if the bear population begins to plummet, that automatically triggers a review by the FWS, which could lead to relisting the bears.
But none of that, say opponents of de-listing, is good enough. "The grizzly may be out of intensive care," says Louisa Wilcox of the NRDC, "but it's too early to send it home from the hospital without adequate precautions." In particular, she suggests that the states won't spend enough money to monitor the bears, that efforts to make hunters clean up after themselves won't work and that the trigger mechanisms for relisting the grizzly are inadequate--they don't, for example, kick in when the bears' favorite food supply, the seeds of the whitebark pine, succumbs to disease or insects. "[The FWS does] do reviews," she says. "There's nothing that says they have to do anything to respond."
Before the grizzly officially comes off the list, the FWS will get an earful of such concerns. The announcement later this month will be just a draft proposal, followed by 90 days of public comment at which opponents will be encouraged to speak up. Only after that will the plan be finalized. By early next year, the Yellowstone grizzly could join the bald eagle in vindicating endangered-species protection--by graduating from it. --Reported by Pat Dawson/Bozeman
WHO'S HOT, WHO'S NOT
Some bears are thriving to the point where they can still be hunted; others are wobbling on the brink of extinction
POLAR BEAR Weight: 440 to 1,760 lbs. Length: Up to 8 ft. 5 in. Range: Greenland, Norway, Russia, Canada, Alaska How dangerous: Extremely. The polar bear will stalk humans for food Status: It could be extinct by the end of the century, as global warming reduces the ice it roams in its hunt for seals, its primary food
AMERICAN BLACK BEAR Weight: 130 to 660 lbs. Length: Up to 6 ft. 3 in. Range: Much of Canada; 32 U.S. states, mostly in the Rockies, Appalachians and Ozarks; northern Mexico How dangerous: Not especially. The black bear avoids humans but can't resist garbage dumps; will attack if cornered Status: Thriving throughout most of its range