- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Twenty-four grizzly bears have been captured so far this year in and around Yellowstone National Park as wildlife managers start another season of research toward a potential lifting of federal protections.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team captured the grizzlies in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and outside the parks in Montana and Wyoming.

Teams are now starting to trap grizzlies in eastern Idaho to attach radio or GPS collars.

“If we can get on half a dozen (in Idaho), that’s good,” said Gregg Losinski of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “If we can get a dozen, that’s wonderful.”

The estimated grizzly population in the 19,000-square-mile Yellowstone ecosystem is 757 bears. Losinski said grizzlies have recovered in the Yellowstone ecosystem and should be delisted, and that discussions are going on between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and individual states.

“The states are ready to take over management,” he said. “The population has met all its goals.”

Frank van Manen, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and team leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said a decline in the survival of cubs and yearling grizzly bears is an indication that the habitat has reached its carrying capacity for grizzlies.

“From a biological standpoint, if you can’t fit more animals into the ecosystem, you’ve reached recovery,” he said.

The Yellowstone ecosystem is one of six grizzly recovery zones in the lower 48, with those in Idaho, Montana and Washington state.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said bears need to be doing well in all the recovery areas and not delisted one area at a time.

“That’s not how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work, and we don’t agree with the approach,” he said. “From our perspective, to carve it up into separate populations to delist undermines the population as a whole.”

Grizzly bears were first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Federal officials delisted grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem in 2007.

But after conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, sued, a judge returned the protection two years later. The judge said the effect of the decline in whitebark pine trees on bears wasn’t given adequate consideration. Whitebark pine nuts are a key food source for grizzlies as they prepare for hibernation. Scientists say warming temperatures can make the trees more susceptible to insect attacks and disease.

Since the 2009 decision, state and federal scientists have submitted additional information they said indicates grizzlies are finding other food sources. There are also indications, scientists said, that the sharp decline in adult trees has leveled off in recent years.

It’s not clear when federal officials might make a decision. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t return a call from The Associated Press.

Losinski said he’d like to see a delisting so money spent on grizzly bear research in the Yellowstone ecosystem could be used in the other recovery areas.

Should Idaho take over management, hunting on a limited basis for grizzlies would be allowed and would generate revenue for state management of grizzlies.

“Hunting is a management tool that is used for all other species at the state level,” Losinski said, noting about 50 grizzlies a year on average are killed because of conflicts with humans. “It’s not that bears aren’t dying, it’s how they’re dying.”

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