YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - Will success spoil the Yellowstone grizzly bear?
The national park is bulging to capacity with grizzlies, and the bears are spreading out far beyond the park's borders. Under the protection of the Endangered Species Act for 30 years, the grizzly population has roared back from a low of about 200 in 1980 to more than 600.
So now the debate - and it's often contentious - is about what's next.
The Bush administration in the next few weeks will propose removing the Yellowstone-based grizzly from the endangered species list. Some environmental groups say the administration is being too hasty to end protections for the slowest reproducing land mammal in North America. In addition, states around here are contemplating limited grizzly hunting.
The situation is a far cry from 22 years ago, when Kerry Gunther, the park's chief bear biologist, used to stay up all night ''baby-sitting'' precious female breeding bears. He needed to ensure that they didn't get too close to humans. At that time, scientists figured the loss of two more female grizzlies could send the population on a downward spiral toward extinction. Gunther would see maybe a dozen bears all year long.
Now there are days where Gunther sees that many in a morning, saying with a smile: ''I never dreamed that it was going to get like this.''
But one man's dream is another's nightmare.
About 60 miles south of Yellowstone's border, Wyoming Game and Fish Warden Herb ''Bubba'' Haley is skinning a dead calf and checking for bite wounds that indicate a grizzly attack. He finds them.
An hour earlier, Haley confirmed that a grizzly killed a cow a couple miles away, likely the same bear that got the calf. In this area far south of the park, wildlife officials have confirmed that grizzlies killed more than a dozen cattle this summer. Haley has trapped eight calf-attacking bears this summer, compared with three last year. After the latest attacks, he set another trap with meat from the dead cow as bait.
''This summer just seems like it's chaotic,'' Haley told rancher Albert Sommers. ''There's grizzlies all over the place.''
Sommers hopes to qualify for a grizzly hunting license if Wyoming goes ahead with tentative plans for a controlled bear hunt.
The population of Yellowstone area grizzlies is growing so well that Chris Servheen, the federal official who's coordinated the grizzly recovery for the past 25 years, thinks limited hunting can work. But it will work only if scientists can determine how many bears can be shot without harming the population. The number of grizzlies hunted probably wouldn't be more than a handful.
A conservation plan for the grizzly, if removed from the endangered list, calls for regular and extensive monitoring that could trigger more restrictions and a return to the protective list if the bear population stalled or started shrinking, Servheen said. Federal grizzly spending will increase from $2.2 million to $3.4 million after the bear gets off the endangered list.
Troubled grizzly populations in Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak mountain ranges, which stretch from eastern Washington to western Montana, have only 20 to 30 bears each. The bear population in a large area around Glacier National Park is almost as big as Yellowstone's. What will help all of them improve is to connect them by introducing grizzlies into prime areas in central Idaho, Servheen said. So far Idaho has balked. Some national environmental groups say the Bush administration's plan for the bear doesn't provide enough protection for the grizzly population. The idea of hunting, however limited, only worries them more. ''We could turn what has been a success - and the Yellowstone grizzly is a success - into something with a different ending with neglect,'' said Louisa Willcox, the wild bears project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The conservation plan doesn't include strict enough recovery methods if the grizzly population starts shrinking and that's a problem because of other threats to the grizzly, Willcox said. She said those threats include problems with the grizzly's key pine cone food source, possible habitat loss, increased human development and the side effects of global warming and oil and gas drilling. There are 1,439 active oil and gas leases on the Yellowstone grizzly bear's general habitat, according to the council's calculations. Lance Craighead, a Bozeman, Mont., bear biologist, simply says: ''I can't see any reason'' to take the bears off the endangered list. ''It seems to be working fine the way it is.''
Two centuries ago, when Lewis and Clark journeyed through Yellowstone, there were more than 50,000 grizzlies in the continental United States. Now it's about 1,200, Servheen said. That figure is too low to tinker with the Yellowstone grizzly's protection, Craighead said. Craighead worries that there isn't enough genetic diversity in the Yellowstone grizzly population and that could lead to harmful inbreeding. The federal government plans to import a single grizzly into Yellowstone once a decade to prevent this.
Environmentalists should celebrate success instead of fret over it, counter the government's grizzly bear officials and the National Wildlife Federation, which has split from most national environmental organizations by supporting the delisting plan. They say the grizzly's comeback may save the very law that helped save the bear.
The Endangered Species Act is under attack in Washington by some powerful Republicans who call it too restrictive and ineffective. Tom France, director of the Northern Rockies Natural Resource Center for the wildlife federation, said the grizzly's recovery shows that the law works and shouldn't be gutted.
A new study in the journal Ecology Letters shows that more than half the species on the endangered list are either improving or are stable. But the return of the grizzly speaks louder than statistics.
''There are so many species that need help,'' said Servheen, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ''This is a model . . . that we can fix listed species.
Because we couldn't find a more difficult species'' than the grizzly.