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 US Fish and Wildlife Service. And he, along with other federal officials, are making plans to take the 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 rest 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 delist grizzly bears is a controversial one. Most government specialists argue that it is time to abandon some of the protections. Their position is echoed by many ranchers and politicians, who insist they need more flexibility in dealing with the threat that the bears, the largest meat-eating animals in the lower 48 states, pose to livestock and humans.
But some environmentalists and scientists remain skeptical, saying 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 delisting is testimony to the bears' resurgence. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the government has delisted 39 species in the 50 states since it created the list in 1973 under the Endangered Species Act. Of those, nine went extinct, 15 recovered, and 15 were removed for technical reasons. About 1,300 species, including some in the US trust territories, remain on it.
In contrast to the argument over grizzlies, the Bush administration's recent decision to take the bald eagle off the list by the end of this year is supported by most environmentalists in light of the birds' dramatic resurgence to more than 7,500 nesting pairs reported nationwide.
The grizzly bears' comeback is far less dramatic, but Servheen said "we've come a long way."
This kind of talk worries Louisa Wilcox, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's wild bear project. Wilcox, who has worked on grizzly conservation since 1985, said federal officials are ignoring the pressures the bears still face.
"Delisting is really about taking chances," Wilcox said. "We believe delisting is premature unless and until habitat's protected so bears can be established as a connected population between Yellowstone and Canada . . . The challenge bears face today is pressure from people, oil and gas development, rural sprawl, and burgeoning off-road vehicle use."
With their mammoth size -- they tend to be 500 to 600 pounds in the Rocky Mountains -- and their tendency to raid campers' food supplies and pounce on local livestock, grizzly bears do not always evoke sympathy. Occasionally they launch brutal attacks on humans, such as the dismemberment of Alaskan bear specialist Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in October by a hulking grizzly known as "The Big Red Machine."
"We need the laws to protect these bears and we need the political climate to protect these bears," said Douglas Honnold, managing attorney for the Bozeman, Mont., office of Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. Honnold added that many local officials and livestock owners in the West have the attitude that "we don't want your bears and we don't want your wolves" and are eager to kill grizzly bears that wander outside Yellowstone and other parks.
Ranchers are increasingly frustrated with the toll grizzly bears take on their cattle. According to Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, bears cost the state's livestock industry $57,000 in fiscal 2003, killing 29 sheep, 92 calves, 11 cows, and one bull.
"We're interested in the ability to deal with problem bears by removing them," Magagna said, adding the government "has to be more responsive to the needs of livestock producers."
Magagna and other stock growers have found an ally in Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, who has been pushing in Washington to have grizzlies delisted. Burns said bears are not only a threat to people and livestock but also have impeded logging in some national forests
"You just have to work around them all the time," Burns said. "We have human beings that want to exist there, we have stockmen who have to put up with losses . . . and we can't manage our forests as long as that bear is on the Endangered Species Act list."
Despite their high-profile status, grizzly bears are hard to spot: During a recent trip to Yellowstone it took several hours to spot one massive grizzly lounging on a hill overlooking the Lamar River.
Servheen noted the government plans to spend $3.4 million a year to manage and monitor grizzlies in their habitat once they're no longer labeled as threatened. "A very careful and adaptive management plan will be in place in perpetuity," he said. "Delisting doesn't mean nobody cares about bears anymore."