Gardiner, Mont. For 23 years, Chris Servheen has devoted himself to saving the grizzly bear from dying out in the American West. Now, he's ready to declare victory.
Servheen, a hardy outdoorsman with a handlebar mustache and drawn features, is the coordinator of grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And he, along with other federal officials, are making plans to take bears off the endangered species list, where they have been listed as threatened since 1975.
By that year, the number of grizzlies in the lower 48 states had plummeted to between 200 and 250. As the bears were pressured by hunters and they lost their habitat to ranching and development, their numbers had dropped precipitously from the early 19th century, when as many as 50,000 roamed the West, ranging as far south as Mexico.
Since they came under strict federal protection, the number of grizzlies in the lower 48 states has bounced back to between 1,200 and 1,400, along with 35,000 in Alaska, where the grizzly has never been listed as threatened. The largest concentration -- 550 to 600 -- is in Yellowstone National Park, with the remainder scattered across northern Montana, northern Idaho and northern Washington.
In sharp contrast to the pending plan to take bald eagles off the endangered species list, the proposal to de-list grizzly bears is a controversial one. Most government experts argue that it is time to abandon some of the protections. Their position is echoed by many stock growers and politicians, who insist they need more flexibility in dealing with the threat that the massive bears, the largest meat-eating animals in the lower 48 states, pose to livestock and humans.
But some environmentalists and scientists remain skeptical, arguing that the move could jeopardize the bears' fragile position in what remains of their western habitat, most of it in national parks.
That federal officials are even considering de-listing is testimony to the bears' resurgence. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the government has de-listed 39 species in the 50 states since it created the list in 1973 under the Endangered Species Act. Of these nine went extinct, 15 recovered and 15 came off for technical reasons. About 1,300 species, including some in the U.S. trust territories, remain on it. The listing includes both threatened species and endangered ones that are in greater jeopardy of going extinct.