Mixed in with the debate are elements of mistrust and, some say, politics.
BILLINGS, Mont. -- The government's call to remove federal protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park has sparked sharp debate among some of the country's leading bear experts, who are divided over whether the bear population has recovered enough.
On one side, some experts believe delisting the bears now -- without greater habitat protections or long-term funding commitments -- would mean erasing gains made over the past 30 years, and could once again leave the grizzlies in peril.
Other experts, however, insist recovery goals have been met and that it's time for the federal government to focus on lesser-known, struggling bear populations in the West.
"The Endangered Species Act was set up to get to what we have now in Yellowstone, a recovered population, and not set up to immunize a species against any kind of threat somebody's imagination might think would happen in the future," said Sterling Miller, who's studied bears for three decades and is now a senior wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, Mont.
How scientists working with the same data can reach such wildly different conclusions about the fate of the bears is partly a matter of specialty: Many of those who have taken sides are considered either conservation biologists or wildlife biologists -- and tend to view the issue and science from those sometimes contrasting perspectives.
But mixed in with the debate are elements of mistrust -- including skepticism of the numbers used to make the case for delisting -- as well as, some say, politics.
"I can't think of anything else that's this polarized," said Craig Pease, the co-author of a study on the grizzly population and one of more than 250 scientists and researchers who recently signed onto a letter opposing delisting as premature.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November said it no longer considers the grizzly population in the greater Yellowstone area -- the park and the national forests that surround it -- to be threatened, and it proposed handing bear management to the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming; portions of all three states make up that area.
The rift among scientists became more evident and public in recent weeks, as the government closed the comment period on its delisting proposal. Environmental and wildlife groups quick to take sides in the debate publicized the positions of researchers that seemed to bolster their cases.
On March 20, the opposition letter, signed by more than 250 scientists and researchers and circulated to reporters by the Natural Resources Defense Council, was sent to the agency's grizzly recovery coordinator, Chris Servheen. Two days later, the National Wildlife Federation distributed the statement of conditional support for delisting that was passed by The Wildlife Society, one the nation's leading groups of wildlife scientists.
The International Association for Bear Research and Management, a group that includes biologists, wildlife managers and bear specialists, officially took no side, but advocated effective monitoring of how the bears respond and a workable means to restore protections, if necessary.
"It's a situation where there are considered opinions -- good, scientific opinions -- that have value on either side," said Harry Reynolds, president of the international group, a bear researcher for decades and a member of both The Wildlife Society and Society for Conservation Biology. "We have no crystal ball. We can't tell what will happen in the future."
"The bottom line," he said, "is the long-term conservation of the bear."
How best to achieve that, though, depends on whom you ask.
Conservation biologists, many of whom signed the letter opposing delisting, say they're less willing to take risks with the bear's future. Some wildlife biologists, who often deal with bears and the conflicts that arise with people, say they take a more realistic, pragmatic approach to the issue.
"In some cases, I think they've failed to look at the real world and real world limitations and what we can and cannot do," said Dave Moody, trophy game coordinator with the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish and part of the interagency team that studies Yellowstone-area grizzlies.
To not move ahead with delisting now, he and others argue, would constitute the government reneging on its promise to the states, landowners and others and could erode support not only for the bears but also the Endangered Species Act.
The government's own grizzly expert agrees: "I think it's harmful to the act not to do what we set out to," Servheen said. "The future of the bears, not only in Yellowstone but other areas, will be built on those that live, work and recreate in bear habitat. When recovery is built on their efforts, on the promise to delist and we don't, they'll ask, Why invest?"
Not all bear experts and conservation biologists believe that investment is secure: Many of them question the accuracy of government population estimates of between 500 and 600, and fear that even if the figure is accurate, the population is still too small and isolated to be secure. Such a small population runs a greater risk of going extinct, they say in their letter.
State and federal wildlife officials say the estimate is conservative and that the population may easily top 600 now. They say it's impossible to get an accurate count -- even of what is considered the world's most studied bear population -- because bears are so solitary and the cost of doing so would be astronomical.
Delisting opponents, including Charles Jonkel, renowned bear expert and co-founder of the conservationist Great Bear Foundation, say more must be done to protect habitat and to link the Yellowstone bear population to other grizzly populations in the Northern Rockies for a larger breeding pool and genetic diversity.
The habitat issue is critical, Jonkel said: "To me, everything else is irrelevant."
Barrie Gilbert, who began studying bears in the early 1970s, agrees with critics that he and others are trying to change recovery targets. The government, he said, "set the goal post too low."
"It's a political decision about whether to delist now," says Gilbert, who was once nearly killed by a grizzly in Yellowstone.
Servheen said politics in no way influenced the move toward delisting; it was simply time to do so, he said. He chalks much of the current debate up to a "trust problem" with the states.
He believes the issues raised by the scientists have been addressed in the broad conservation plan that would take effect upon delisting. But the agency will be combing through these and other comments in the months ahead, he said.
A final decision could come as early as year's end, though all sides expect litigation to follow.
On the Net:
Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly brief: http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/life--histories...
National Wildlife Federation: http://www.nwf.org/
Natural Resources Defense Council: http://www.nrdc.org/
The Wildlife Society: http://www.wildlife.org/
Society for Conservation Biology: http://www.conbio.org/
Yellowstone National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yell/