Federal officials say that a study on whether Yellowstone’s grizzly bears should be removed from the Endangered Species List could be finished as early as this fall. According to the Jackson Hole News and Guide, Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen said in an interagency meeting that Yellowstone’s grizzlies could be delisted by this time next year.

Former US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last year that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will be seeking to delist the estimated 600 grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park. After more than 30 years of restoration efforts, the agency considers the species to be recovered. Not all conservationists agree with this sentiment, saying that the position occupied by Yellowstone’s bears is fragile.

In 2007, the USFWS managed to successfully delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies, but restored the species’ federally protected status less than two years later due to a court case. The plaintiffs behind the lawsuit argued that the USFWS did not account for the dwindling number of whitebark pine in the park. The pine’s nuts are a major food source for the bears, and their decline could threaten the grizzly population.

“The gains are precarious,” Louisa Willcox of the National Resources Defense Council said at the time. “Grizzles are low-reproducers. You can turn increased numbers into a decline very quickly.”

However, a later report by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team found that the whitebark decline had little impact on the bears. Wyoming and federal biologists added that bears thrive in plenty of areas where whitebark pine are not available.

The USFWS is currently conducting a five-pronged study into whether Yellowstone’s largest carnivore should be delisted. Factors taken into account are the status of Yellowstone’s bear habitat, threats from disease or predation, protection given to the bears by other laws, threats to the species from commercial or recreational overuse, and other issues that might affect the continued survival of the population.

“That will all be done, we expect, by this fall,” Servheen said.

At that point the USFWS will decide whether it will further pursue efforts to delist Yellowstone’s bears.

Image from Lisa Williams on the flickr Creative Commons

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