Grizzly Bear Comeback Prompts Growls of Protest

Article excerpt

It happened without fanfare during the middle of a December snow storm. As a frigid mass of arctic air settled over the Rockies, the last grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park went underground.

But while the bruins take their winter snooze, a debate over their future rages in a blizzard of controversy.

This month, in Denver, federal wildlife officials are expected to announce the recovery of one of the most majestic and fearsome symbols of the American West. Proclaiming the highest count of bear cubs in the Yellowstone ecosystem in decades, members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee say they have moved a step closer toward removing the ambling carnivores from the list of federal protection. But many conservationists regard the US Fish and Wildlife Service's optimism with suspicion, maintaining that government assertions are contradicted by independent scientists. "There is far from unanimous agreement on the conclusions being drawn by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee," says Louisa Willcox, coordinator of Wild Forever, a bear-preservation network supported by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Great Bear Foundation, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club. Still Christopher Servheen, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who oversees US grizzly bear conservation efforts, insists that the apparent upturn for the grizzly, in a place where the species was once virtually written off, is evidence that the Endangered Species Act works and should be reauthorized by Congress. Mr. Servheen says 1996 has shaped up to be a banner year for grizzlies. Researchers documented 70 cubs compared with just 33 a year ago. Only four cubs were identified in 1975, when the Yellowstone grizzly population was listed as a "threatened" species. "We were confronting a biological crisis," he says. The number of bear deaths from human causes was high, there was little resolution for any of the major management issues, public support for bears was small, and scientific understanding of the bear population itself was minimal. I believe we have turned the corner...." By Servheen's estimate, there are now between 350 and 450 grizzlies roaming across Yellowstone and six adjacent national forests, more than double the number 13 years ago. Not everyone, however, shares Servheen's enthusiasm or his arithmetic. …