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Grizzly status debated as population rises

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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.

Conservation success story

"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.

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