HELENA, Mont. — The Yellowstone grizzly bear, one of the first and most controversial animals to be protected by the Endangered Species Act, is fully recovered, and it is time to remove the stringent safeguards it has had for nearly three decades, federal officials said on Tuesday.
The number of bears has gone from a low of between 200 and 300 in the 1970s to more than 600 in the wild landscape that has Yellowstone National Park at its core.
"This has been a very long process," Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said after the department announced it would publish a proposed delisting of the animal in the Federal Register on Thursday. "People involved in the effort felt strongly the time had come to acknowledge recovery of the bear."
The Interior Department plans to issue a decision after a 90-day public comment period. If delisting occurs, it will probably happen no sooner than mid- to late 2006, the agency said.
The job of managing an unlisted bear would fall to state wildlife agencies and the Park Service. It is considered likely that the states would allow the animal to be hunted, but in terms of management, Norton said, "the reality is there's very little change. "
Federal grizzly bear biologists in Montana say that years of research show that the bear population around Yellowstone is robust and recovered.
"It's probably one of the most studied mammals in the world," said Chuck Schwartz, head of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, in Bozeman, Mont.
Conservation groups are divided. The delisting is supported by the National Wildlife Federation, the nation's largest conservation group. "We have reached all of the recovery targets and exceeded them for a number of years," said Thomas M. France, head of the organization's Northern Rockies office, in Missoula, Mont.