YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYO.
It happened without fanfare during the middle of a December snow storm. As a frigid mass of arctic air settled over the Rockies, the last grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park went underground.
But while the bruins take their winter snooze, a debate over their future rages in a blizzard of controversy.
This month, in Denver, federal wildlife officials are expected to announce the recovery of one of the most majestic and fearsome symbols of the American West.
Proclaiming the highest count of bear cubs in the Yellowstone ecosystem in decades, members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee say they have moved a step closer toward removing the ambling carnivores from the list of federal protection.
But many conservationists regard the US Fish and Wildlife Service's optimism with suspicion, maintaining that government assertions are contradicted by independent scientists.
"There is far from unanimous agreement on the conclusions being drawn by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee," says Louisa Willcox, coordinator of Wild Forever, a bear-preservation network supported by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Great Bear Foundation, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club.
Still Christopher Servheen, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who oversees US grizzly bear conservation efforts, insists that the apparent upturn for the grizzly, in a place where the species was once virtually written off, is evidence that the Endangered Species Act works and should be reauthorized by Congress.
Mr. Servheen says 1996 has shaped up to be a banner year for grizzlies. Researchers documented 70 cubs compared with just 33 a year ago. Only four cubs were identified in 1975, when the Yellowstone grizzly population was listed as a "threatened" species.
"We were confronting a biological crisis," he says. The number of bear deaths from human causes was high, there was little resolution for any of the major management issues, public support for bears was small, and scientific understanding of the bear population itself was minimal. I believe we have turned the corner...."
By Servheen's estimate, there are now between 350 and 450 grizzlies roaming across Yellowstone and six adjacent national forests, more than double the number 13 years ago.
Not everyone, however, shares Servheen's enthusiasm or his arithmetic. Ms. Willcox says that declaring success may be a prescription for extinction. "The key to maintaining a viable population of bears is habitat," she says. "The grizzly bears' home is the wilderness of the West, which is increasingly vulnerable to development pressures and where agencies are intimidated and reluctant to take a stand."
One irrefutable fact is that bear sightings this year were reported all over the region. Cattle ranchers in Pinedale, Wyo., more than 100 miles south of Yellowstone, were surprised when a group of hungry grizzlies began feeding on their livestock.
It shocked biologists, too, because bears were not predicted to to expand their range so quickly. Three years ago, Wyoming initiated the debate over delisting when it petitioned to remove the bear from federal protection. Wyoming Gov. Jim Gerringer would like to remove land-use restrictions pertaining to development in grizzly habitat. And the director of the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish has openly lobbied to have the bear reclassified as a game animal for hunting.
Willcox argues that it is premature to begin talking about removing the Yellowstone grizzly population from federal protection, particularly at a time when destruction of habitat on private land is accelerating. The greater Yellowstone region is one of the fastest growing areas in the West, with hundreds of new homes dotting valley bottoms considered key feeding areas for female grizzlies with cubs.
In 1994 and 1995, 23 percent of the ecosystem's breeding females were killed as a result of run-ins with humans on public and private land. "The government is painting a rosy picture so that it will have a success story to wave in front of Congress as a reason for reauthorizing the Endangered Species Act," Willcox says. "While we support the Act, we think it is foolhardy for the government to play political football with the grizzly bear."
The attempt to restore the grizzly population in this region is being closely watched by wildlife specialists around the world. Other efforts to protect large, meat-eating mammals in heavily populated areas have fared poorly. If people can be taught to make room for grizzlies here, then some say there is hope for saving tigers in Asia, and jaguars in Central and South America.