By a margin of 18-1 with one abstention, the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee voted to approve a conservation strategy for future handling of the bears.
The strategy plan now advances to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of what has been a months-long process to potentially remove the Yellowstone grizzly from federal protection.
Representatives attended from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, which would jointly take over bear management if the species is ultimately delisted from the Endangered Species Act, Yellowstone National Park and several federal forest services and agencies, Wednesday afternoon at the Buffalo Bill Center in a rare Cody meeting.
The vote was hailed as a major step towards a delisting rule, but it was also considered by several people as the logical extension of a 40-year recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly population from a low of 136 in the early 1970s.
“This is huge,” said Park County commissioner Lee Livingston, who is also president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association.
Not everyone was as thrilled as Livingston. The nay vote came from Dan Wenk, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. The absention came from Leander Watson of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe.
The tribes have opposed delisting based on the possibility that hunting will be an element of the states’ management program and because the grizzly is considered sacred in some religions.
Watson said Native American tribes were speaking to Fish and Wildlife officials “nation to nation” Wednesday and he had no instructions on how to vote.
Fish and Wildlife proposed delisting in March, triggering several intermediary steps. One is approval of this conservation strategy to be used by the states as a guidepost.
However, up until 24 hours before the session there was still disagreement about the wording of the document in some key areas. Language was hammered out only at the last minute.
Agreement on stabilization of the Yellowstone bear population at certain levels and acceptance of a conservative methodolgy used to determine those levels was an important sticking area. Another was applyling the phrase for future” to the plan. Some of the approximately 75 people in attendance derided that word choice as ambiguous.
Wenk said he is disappointed with the vagueness of the “foreseeable future” phrase as it applies to the long-term health of the Yellowstone grizzly.
The program calls for the minimum grizzly population in the prescribed 23,828 square kilometer recovery area to remain above 600.
Last year the total was estimated at 717. At this point in 2016 the bear estimate in the area is 690.
Bonnie Rice, of the Sierra Club, and Kelly Nokes of WildEarth Guardians, spoke against the strategy and along with Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said they want to see a decent interval for public comment before additional delisting steps are taken.
However, Loren Grosskopf, a Park County commissioner and a YES committee member who worked on the committee that worked out the language, was pleased with the vote.
“I’m going to celebrate tonight,” he said.
(Lew Freedman can be reached at email@example.com.)