BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Wildlife officials in the northern Rockies say it's time to lift Endangered Species Act protections for hundreds of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, a move some environmental groups opposed Thursday as premature.
An initial decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected next month. On Wednesday, an oversight panel recommended that the agency advance plans to take the animals off the threatened-species list.
If the agency concurs, its decision would kick off a rule-making process stripping federal protections for more than 700 bears across the Yellowstone region of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the government's top grizzly biologist, Christopher Servheen, said Thursday.
Revoking the animal's threatened-species status would open the door to limited sport hunting. But other conservation measures would stay in place, including protections for the animal's habitat and biological monitoring to guard against future population declines.
Grizzlies received federal protections in 1975 after they had been wiped out across much of their historical range.
The Yellowstone population has slowly rebounded and now hosts the second-largest concentration of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states. Those bears range across 19,000 square miles centered on the high country of Yellowstone and surrounding national forests.
There are about 1,000 bears outside the Yellowstone region, most in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem that includes Glacier National Park. The Glacier-area bears are expected to be subject to a separate attempt to lift protections in coming years.
Alaska is home to an estimated 30,000 grizzlies, but they have never been listed as threatened and hundreds are hunted annually.
In recent years, the Yellowstone bears have pushed with increasing frequency into lower-lying areas, where they run into conflicts with hunters, ranchers and others.
Some outside scientists and environmental groups warned Thursday that lifting protections for bears would be premature because of declines in a key food source attributed to climate change.
High-elevation stands of whitebark pine trees, which produce a nut that is a crucial food source for some bears, have been devastated by pests that historically were kept in check by extreme cold.
Concerns over whitebark trees already tripped up efforts to remove protections for grizzlies once. A federal judge sided with environmentalists who sued after the animal's threatened status was lifted in 2007.
Protections were restored in 2009, and scientists have since been working to document the importance of whitebark to grizzlies.
Wednesday's delisting recommendation from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a panel of state, local, tribal and federal officials, followed the release of a new report saying bears are successfully turning to alternative food sources. They are eating more elk and bison to make up for the loss of the pine nuts, the report concluded.
"The fat levels in bears are the same as they ever were," said Servheen, the grizzly-bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The bears are adapting, as we said in the initial rule, because they are omnivorous."
David Mattson, a Yellowstone grizzly-bear researcher now at Yale University, criticized the "stampede" to list protections for bears and said the study into whitebark pine was flawed. Researchers did not adequately address the problems posed by grizzlies coming into more contact with humans in their search for wildlife or livestock to eat, he said.
Researchers have documented more than 200 grizzly bear deaths in the last five years, including many killed by wildlife officials after conflicts with humans.
Bear mortalities are down sharply this year, with 26 killed to date versus 56 reported in 2012.
Despite the one-year drop, the presence of bears in new areas means they are likely to continue dying following encounters with humans, Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Director Jim Unsworth said.
But he added that the response to such conflicts would change little in the absence of federal oversight.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)