HELENA, Mont. — Protections that have been in place for more than 40 years for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area will be lifted this summer after U.S. government officials ruled Thursday that the population is no longer threatened.
Grizzlies in all continental U.S. states except Alaska have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1975, when just 136 bears roamed in and around Yellowstone. There are now an estimated 700 grizzlies in the area that includes northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the population has recovered.
"This achievement stands as one of America's great conservation successes," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement.
Grizzly bears once numbered about 50,000 and ranged over much of North America. Their population plummeted starting in the 1850s because of widespread hunting and trapping, and the bears now occupy only 2 percent of their original territory.
The final ruling by the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of endangered and threatened species will give jurisdiction over the bears to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming by late July.
That will allow those states to plan limited bear hunts outside the park's boundaries as long as the overall bear population does not fall below 600 bears.
Hunting bears inside Yellowstone would still be banned. The bears roam both inside and outside the park, and their range has been expanding as their numbers have grown.
The Obama administration first proposed removing grizzlies as a threatened species by issuing an initial ruling in March 2016. The 15 months that have passed since then have been used to by federal officials to evaluate states' grizzly management plans and respond to themes of concern generated by 650,000 comments from the public, including wildlife advocates and Native American tribal officials who are staunchly opposed to hunting grizzly bears.
Some 125 tribes have signed a treaty opposing trophy hunting grizzly bears, which Native Americans consider a sacred animal.