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Yellowstone grizzly bear roars back. Now what?

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo.—Will success spoil the Yellowstone grizzly bear?

The national park is bulging to capacity with grizzlies, and the bears are spreading out far beyond the park's borders. Under the protection of the Endangered Species Act for 30 years, the grizzly population has roared back from a low of about 200 in 1980 to more than 600.

So now the debate—and it's often contentious—is about what's next.

The Bush administration in the next few weeks will propose removing the Yellowstone-based grizzly from the endangered species list. Some environmental groups say the administration is being too hasty to end protections for the slowest reproducing land mammal in North America. In addition, states around here are contemplating limited grizzly hunting.

The situation is a far cry from 22 years ago, when Kerry Gunther, the park's chief bear biologist, used to stay up all night "babysitting" precious female breeding bears. He needed to ensure that they didn't get too close to humans and have to be killed. At that time, scientists figured the loss of two more female grizzlies could send the population on a downward spiral toward extinction. Gunther would see maybe a dozen bears all year long.

Now there are days where Gunther sees that many in a morning, saying with a smile: "I never dreamed that it was going to get like this."

But one man's dream is another's nightmare.

About 60 miles south of Yellowstone's border, Wyoming Game and Fish Warden Herb "Bubba" Haley is skinning a dead calf and checking for bite wounds that indicate a grizzly attack. He finds them.

An hour earlier, Haley confirmed that a grizzly killed a cow a couple miles away, likely the same bear that got the calf. In this area far south of the park, wildlife officials have confirmed that grizzlies killed more than a dozen cattle this summer. Haley has trapped eight calf-attacking bears this summer, compared with three last year. After the latest attacks, he set another trap with meat from the dead cow as bait.

"This summer just seems like it's chaotic," Haley told rancher Albert Sommers. "There's grizzlies all over the place."

Sommers hopes to qualify for a grizzly hunting license if Wyoming goes ahead with tentative plans for a controlled bear hunt.

The population of Yellowstone area grizzlies is growing so well that Chris Servheen, the federal official who's coordinated the grizzly recovery for the past 25 years, thinks limited hunting can work. But it will work only if scientists can determine how many bears can be shot without harming the population. The number of grizzlies hunted probably wouldn't be more than a handful.

A conservation plan for the grizzly, if removed from the endangered list, calls for regular and extensive monitoring that could trigger more restrictions and a return to the protective list if the bear population stalled or started shrinking, Servheen said. Federal grizzly spending will increase from $2.2 million to $3.4 million after the bear gets off the endangered list.

Troubled grizzly populations in Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak mountain ranges, which stretch from eastern Washington to western Montana, have only 20 to 30 bears each. The bear population in a large area around Glacier National Park is almost as big as Yellowstone's. What will help all of them improve is to connect them by introducing grizzlies into prime areas in central Idaho, Servheen said. So far Idaho has balked.

Some national environmental groups say the Bush administration's plan for the bear doesn't provide enough protection for the grizzly population. The idea of hunting, however limited, only worries them more.

"We could turn what has been a success—and the Yellowstone grizzly is a success—into something with a different ending with neglect," said Louisa Willcox, the wild bears project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The conservation plan doesn't include strict enough recovery methods if the grizzly population starts shrinking and that's a problem because of other threats to the grizzly, Willcox said. She said those threats include problems with the grizzly's key pine cone food source, possible habitat loss, increased human development and the side effects of global warming and oil and gas drilling. There are 1,439 active oil and gas leases on the Yellowstone grizzly bear's general habitat, according to the council's calculations.

Lance Craighead, a Bozeman, Mont., bear biologist, simply says: "I can't see any reason" to take the bears off the endangered list. "It seems to be working fine the way it is."

Two centuries ago, when Lewis and Clark journeyed through Yellowstone, there were more than 50,000 grizzlies in the continental United States. Now it's about 1,200, Servheen said. That figure is too low to tinker with the Yellowstone grizzly's protection, Craighead said.

Craighead worries that there isn't enough genetic diversity in the Yellowstone grizzly population and that could lead to harmful inbreeding. The federal government plans to import a single grizzly into Yellowstone once a decade to prevent this.

Environmentalists should celebrate success instead of fret over it, counter the government's grizzly bear officials and the National Wildlife Federation, which has split from most national environmental organizations by supporting the de-listing plan. They say the grizzly's comeback may save the very law that helped save the bear.

The Endangered Species Act is under attack in Washington by some powerful Republicans who call it too restrictive and ineffective. Tom France, director of the Northern Rockies Natural Resource Center for the wildlife federation, said the grizzly's recovery shows that the law works and shouldn't be gutted.

A new study in the journal Ecology Letters shows that more than half the species on the endangered list are either improving or are stable. But the return of the grizzly speaks louder than statistics.

"There are so many species that need help," said Servheen, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This is a model ... that we can fix listed species. Because we couldn't find a more difficult species" than the grizzly.

Despite females giving birth only once every three years, the grizzly population in the Yellowstone region is increasing at a healthy rate of 4 percent to 7 percent each year, said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Chuck Schwartz, chair of the federal government's grizzly science task force.

Schwartz said that in the park, the bear population has reached the point where it is so full, fewer cubs are surviving or being born. It's nature's way of keeping the park population in balance. Just outside the park, bears are reproducing at a faster rate and venturing further. The area where bears live has increased by 43 percent in the last two decades, he said.

"The question I would ask is: Would you consider listing the species today? Most rational people say no," Schwartz said.

What worked in getting the grizzly back from near-extinction was teaching people how to bear-proof their garbage. This kept bear-human conflicts—which would end with dead bears—to a minimum.

Despite their fearsome reputation, grizzly bears have killed only six or seven people in the Yellowstone area in the past 100 years and none since 1986. The killing in Alaska of an actor-turned-activist featured in the new documentary "Grizzly Man" is a rare case, Servheen said.

Livestock are a different matter. Bears treat the world as a giant buffet, eating pinecones, garbage, bison carcasses and live cattle. Grizzlies that kill cattle are "just the odd adult male bear," Servheen said. But their cattle kills are growing.

Between 1996 and 2004, Wyoming Game and Fish officials confirmed that grizzlies killed 100 cattle. But the number of cattle lost and not found can be several times that, according to a study by Sommers and Charles Price, leaders of the Upper Green River Cattle Association.

Wyoming reimburses ranchers 3.5 times the market rate for every calf killed. But Sommers, who runs a ranch homesteaded by his grandfather, said he's fighting a losing battle against grizzlies.

"They're just making a living," Sommers said. "The problem is that their making a living is interfering with my making a living."

Despite their larger numbers, grizzlies are far harder to see now than when they were begging for food in the early 1980s. But the 3 million annual visitors to Yellowstone National Park can still spot them.

On a recent August morning, dozens of people stand at one bank of the Yellowstone River, watching a female grizzly and her cub feasting on a bison carcass on the other riverbank. When the cub stands up, the crowd lets out a collective "awww."

Linda Smith of Lady Lake, Fla., has seen nine bears in her first five days. She proclaimed: "This is heaven."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): GRIZZLY

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050825 GRIZZLY map

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