HAYDEN VALLEY, WYOMING — A few weeks ago, an American biologist conducting an aerial survey of wildlife observed this scene from the cockpit of a small airplane: Eleven grizzly bears and four gray wolves feasting together on a dead elk.
Had the sighting occurred in remotest Alaska, federal scientists wouldn't have blinked.
But the fact that this remarkable assemblage of large predators was witnessed here in Yellowstone where 20 years ago the grizzly population appeared headed for extinction and where eight years ago there were no wolves is considered a modern conservation miracle.
Observers say that the presence of between 400 and 600 grizzlies in the Yellowstone area is a testament to effectiveness of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a safety net for animals and plants in danger of disappearing. Yet for federal and state officials, environmentalists, and natural-resource developers, a controversy now centers on whether the current optimistic snapshot of bear numbers means grizzlies can do well on their own; or if given persistent threats to their survival pulling aside the ESA's protective shield is premature.
Adding urgency to the debate: The governors of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are asking the Bush administration to remove this famous bruin population from federal protection sometime between 2003 and 2005. Some states are also proposing that they take over the management of the bears. Grizzlies have been viewed as a key part of the ESA and the outcome of the debate is certain to affect the way rare animals with huge home ranges grizzlies need as much as 350 square miles are managed in the future.
"The recovery of Yellowstone grizzlies is a wonderful success story," says Sterling Miller, a senior biologist with the National Wildlife Federation. And, he notes, when the ESA was written in the 1970s, Congress stated that if an imperiled animal population rebounds and meets biological targets for recovery, it is supposed to come off the endangered list. That moment, Mr. Miller adds, has arrived.
It was in 1975 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the Yellowstone population as "threatened" following a rapid decline in grizzly numbers. The action resulted in sport hunts of bears being canceled indefinitely, the threat of a $50,000 fine and a year in federal prison for anyone who poached a bruin;,and some restrictions placed on public land activities.
Now, as summer tourists visit Yellowstone to photograph grizzlies, which have become increasingly visible from park roadsides, some argue that it's time to loosen land-use restrictions and restore sport hunting of bears.
"The grizzly is a species that has been studied to death and now it's obvious to everyone that this bear population is doing extremely well," says Bill Schilling, executive director of the Wyoming Business Alliance, whose members favor removing federal protection.
Today, roughly 1,100 grizzlies, remnant descendants of a historical population that once numbered 100,000, occupy less than 2 percent of their former range in the lower 48 states.
"In fact, while it's certainly true that many government agencies and individual people are owed praise for rescuing the Yellowstone grizzly, the job is far from finished," says Louisa Willcox with Bearforce, a Montana-based conservation organization.
Ms. Willcox says the "windshield perspective" enjoyed by park tourists does not portray the larger, troubling picture of what is confronting bears on a landscape level. Between one third and one half of the present bear population lives outside Yellowstone Park mostly in adjacent national forests. The Bush administration has expressed interest in developing some of those lands for oil and natural gas; timber companies also are interested in logging there. In addition, development of homes on private land is bringing more people into bear habitat, and many bears continue to die in conflicts with elk hunters.
Willcox is also skeptical of relinquishing management of grizzlies to states a proposal under consideration by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Four counties adjoining the Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming recently announced they would not allow grizzlies to wander inside their borders. And she points to Idaho's successful lobbying of the Bush administration to curtail proposed reintroduction of grizzlies into the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness as evidence of local animosity toward bears.
The biggest worry for many, however, concerns natural foods, namely the projected loss of whitebark pine forest to an arboreal disease called blister rust that has devastated whitebark pine elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Biologists say that nothing comes close to matching the nutritional benefits grizzlies derive from seeds embedded in the cones of whitebark pine come hibernation time. Though bears may find alternative sources if whitebark pine disappears, experts say the short-term effect could be the loss of significant numbers of bears as they are forced to search for food near civilized areas, often resulting in fatal encounters with people.
Losing as few as half a dozen breeding female grizzlies each year can mean the difference between a population that is increasing and one that is declining. Bear survival, in this instance, will depend on the latitude states afford grizzlies roaming outside Yellowstone Park, says Charles Schwartz, who oversees the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Study Team, a research arm of the US Geological Survey.
"Some people are very pessimistic about the bear's future, and I agree that we can never let down our guard," Schwartz says. "But I think the states should be given an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to manage bears. If they're not up the task, the American public will make sure they do their job.