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JACKSON, Wyo. – Work to remove grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem from federal endangered species protection is moving forward.

That’s what Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator, told members of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in Jackson, Wyo., this week.

A new rule removing the bears from the endangered species list could be finished by the end of the year.

With a “conservative estimate” of 741 bears in the greater Yellowstone area, including a record 58 females with cubs of the year in 2013, the area has reached or is near its capacity for grizzlies, members of the study team said.

The subcommittee includes representatives from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho’s wildlife management agencies, the Bureau of Land Management and national forests, as well as representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the national parks.

Any delisting of a species requires a five-factor threat analysis that for the bears is expected to be finished by fall, Servheen said. When finished, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide, based on the analysis, if it should create a new rule removing the animals from protection.

Servheen said a rule could be completed by year’s end. The public will have a chance to comment before it goes into effect.

The five factors in the analysis are threats or destruction of the species’ habitat; threats from overuse of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purpose; threats from disease or predation; the amount of protection provided the species and its habitat by other laws and regulations like the conservation strategy for the bears; and other natural or manmade factors that might affect continued existence of the species.

The majority of work in proposing a delisting rule is in the threats analysis, Servheen said. That is what really determines if a species should be listed.

“We know more about this population of bears than we know about any other bear species in the world,” he said.

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In 2013, there were 28 known mortalities of bears in the greater Yellowstone. Of those, 23 were human caused, 3 were natural and two were undetermined, said Mark Haroldson with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. This year there were a record number of females with cubs-of-the year. Sixty percent of those females had twins.

Bear population growth is between zero and 2.2 percent, said Frank van Manen, leader of the study team. New bear captures also remain high. Almost 60 percent of bears captured in the ecosystem each year have never been caught before.

“Now how is that possible if this population is declining?” van Manen said.

Bears also have increased their range up to 38 percent, while maintaining a strong, constant presence, especially of females with cubs, in the core area. For that kind of expansion, there needs to be a stable high-density population, he said. The bears’ range has also increase by more than half since the 1980s, he said.

In 2007 grizzly bears were delisted, but a federal judge ordered the animals back on the list two years later.

They ruled that there wasn’t enough information about how the decline of whitebark pine trees, which provide an important food source for bears, could impact the population.

A synthesis of past research on grizzly bear diets shows they adapt when one food source is in short supply by increasing use of another, van Manen said.

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Not everyone thinks it’s time to remove the bears from the Endangered Species List.

The new rule likely will be similar to what was presented in 2007, with the addition of the food synthesis report, said Christine Wilcox, a research scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The big question is whether the bears are using the landscape differently due to the decline in whitebark pine and what that shift means for the population.

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“And they haven’t addressed that,” she said of the subcommittee and the study team.

If the bears are not selecting habitat for whitebark pine they are using the landscape differently.

There hasn’t been enough time to evaluate if females are experiencing decreased body fat with a shift in diet, Wilcox said.

There are a lot of small issues that alone maybe aren’t a big threat, but when put together raise concern about how the bears will thrive off the Endangered Species List, she said.

She also isn’t confident in the population numbers.

If bears are eating more meat to make up for fewer whitebark pine trees, they are in areas that aren’t covered and that means they are easier to spot and count – no matter what method is used to track population.

And while the study’s growth rate is often touted, she said it doesn’t include a confidence interval, which could mean the population is actually declining.

But whether the population is stable or not, it doesn’t matter if there isn’t a way to link the bears to other populations, she said.

Talk about the bear’s future has been about food sources, she said. Ways to link Yellowstone and Glacier populations together to ensure genetic diversity in the future haven’t been addressed and until that happens, she said, the population remains vulnerable.

Kelsey Dayton is a Missoula freelance writer who reported from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting this week.

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