SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Federal wildlife managers have determined that grizzly bear numbers in and around Yellowstone National Park have rebounded sufficiently to propose stripping the animals of U.S. Endangered Species Act protections in the months ahead, a spokesman told Reuters.
The latest count of grizzlies in the Yellowstone region puts the estimated population of the hump-shouldered bruins at just over 750, well exceeding the government's recovery goal of 500 animals, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That compares with just 136 believed left in the Yellowstone ecosystem - encompassing parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho - when grizzlies were formally listed as threatened throughout the Lower 48 states in 1975, after they were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction.
Sportsmen and ranchers, who make up a powerful political constituency in Western states, have strongly advocated de-listing grizzlies, arguing that their growing numbers pose a threat to humans, livestock and big-game animals such as elk.
Environmentalists have raised concerns that while grizzlies have made a comeback, their recovery could falter if federal safeguards are lifted, a move that would open the animals to public hunting outside of the national park.
Native American tribes, which revere the bear, also are skeptical of removing the grizzly's threatened status.
But the Obama administration has been talking about de-listing the Yellowstone grizzlies since late 2010, and a joint federal-state committee of wildlife managers recommended ending their protected classification two years later.
A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers U.S. safeguards for the bulk of imperiled species, said the agency was moving in that direction in recent talks with the three states and tribal governments on a plan to manage grizzlies without federal protection.
"The service is hopeful that we can confirm the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms in the near future, and if so, we anticipate having a proposal to delist ready in the next few months," the spokesman, Ryan Moehring, told Reuters on Monday.
A panel of federal and tribal bear managers will gather on Tuesday and Wednesday in Wyoming, where they are expected to back the de-listing of the grizzly.
But leaders of several tribes, including the Shoshone-Bannock of Idaho, are to meet later this week with top U.S. wildlife and land managers and members of Congress to lobby against state plans for opening trophy hunts of grizzlies, said Sara Atiqtalik, spokeswoman a coalition of 40-plus tribes opposed to delisting.
Any delisting proposal would only apply to bears in and around Yellowstone. Four other populations clustered in parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington state would remain classified as threatened for now, Moehring said. A much larger grizzly population in Alaska is unlisted.
Yellowstone's grizzlies were briefly removed from protected status in 2007, but were later re-listed after environmentalists sued, saying the government had failed to account for such factors as climate change.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Ken Wills