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Debate over de-listing Wyoming Grizzly bears continues


The U-S Fish and Wildlife Service wants Grizzly Bears taken off the Endangered Species list, but the agency's effort has been blunted by the courts. Matt Laslo reports from Washington on the battle over Wyoming's Grizzlies. 

MATT LASLO: In 1975 government officials worried the west could one day be grizzly-less. Using the Endangered Species Act the government became a great protector of the Bears that play a vital role in the region's ecosystem. But by 2007 the federal government recorded a massive rebound in the population, so they delisted Grizzly Bears. 

DAN ASH: So we believe the Grizzly Bear is a substantial success story. 

LASLO: That's Dan Ash, the head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He says revitalizing the Grizzly population in Wyoming and throughout the Yellowstone National Park region reveals the difficult, yet somewhat simple, mandate Congress gave the Executive Branch in 1973. 

ASH: When you think about the objective of the Endangered Species Act, the purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to prevent extinction of species.

LASLO: But while federal officials were popping champagne, they ran into a problem: federal courts. Conservation groups sued and the courts sided with them, arguing global warming was threatening bears ability to sustain a healthy population. Currently Grizzly Bears are still 'called endangered,' yet their numbers are up and officials report an uncomfortable rise in bear on human encounters. Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso says that's why the law needs to be revised

JOHN BARRASSO: This shows how detrimental the Endangered Species Act has been to actually helping deal with the problem.

LASLO: Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis agrees. She says a part of the problem lies with Congress for allowing the Endangered Species Act to lapse. 

CYNTHIA LUMMIS: We should be delisting the Grizzly Bear and then toasting it! Because the Grizzly Bear has recovered.

LASLO: Lummis says the other half of the problem lies with judges.  

LUMMIS: The courts have actually been making law. So it’s time for Congress to get back involved. To reauthorize the act in a way that improves the act, not destroys the act.

LASLO: Environmentalists see it quite differently. They argue Grizzlies' numbers are still unknown and they fear a delisting would allow states like Wyoming to allow humans to once again start hunting the animals in droves. Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club says delisting is just too big of a gamble.

BONNIE RICE: There are very, very few places where these bears can exist. And we're incredibly lucky to have Grizzly Bears in greater Yellowstone. and in the face of all these uncertainties about the trends in the population and the changes in habitat,  the changes in food sources, we don't think now is the time remove protections and risk its full recovery.

LASLO: And court orders are court orders. Fish and Wildlife Director Ash says now his agency has to reassess the population and make its case anew. 

ASH: So we’re going back. We’re doing a comprehensive assessment, and we’re preparing to reconsider the issue and if we if we feel that it still warrants it then we’ll re-propose to delist in probably early in spring of 2014.

LASLO: There's another snag for Ash though: the federal budget cuts known as sequestration have slashed his bottom line. 

ASH: It takes the dollars to do the science. It takes the people on the ground to convert that into sensible management strategy and direction. And right now where we are with budgets and sequester it’s difficult to see how we’re going to do that.

LASLO: Now the Fish and Wildlife Service is spending precious resources to redo a study the agency officials know the answer to. And while Wyoming lawmakers want to tweak the Endangered Species Act, no serious effort is afoot in this divided Congress. So for now many in the environmental community - and presumably those Grizzlies - are the ones popping the bubbly.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Matt Laslo in Washington.

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering campaigns and every aspect of federal policy since 2006. While he has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, he has also written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Guardian, The Omaha World-Herald, VICE News and Washingtonian Magazine.
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