By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Federal and state wildlife managers of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area recommended on Wednesday that U.S. Endangered Species Act protections be lifted for the animals, a decision that would open the way for them to be hunted.
Yellowstone's grizzlies, now classified as a threatened species, were briefly removed from protected status by the federal government in 2007, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the outsized, hump-shouldered bears had made a healthy comeback.
At the time, the number of grizzlies in the region had exceeded the government's recovery goal of 500 bears, the government said.
But conservationists successfully challenged the de-listing in court, arguing that the government discounted climate changes that brought about the decline of whitebark pines, a crucial food source for grizzlies, in the Yellowstone area.
On Wednesday, members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee sought to reverse that decision, recommending a new de-listing after reviewing a report suggesting Yellowstone's bears can be sustained by berries and a multitude of other food sources.
The panel estimated the grizzly population in and around Yellowstone, which spans parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, has now climbed to about 600 bears.
The recommendation is a formality and not required by law before the Fish and Wildlife Service officially decides whether to propose lifting federal safeguards from Yellowstone-area grizzlies, committee spokesman Gregg Losinki said.
But environmentalists criticized the recommendation, which they see as a precursor to de-listing and ultimately to sport hunting of the bears.
"The grizzly bear is arguably the most beautiful and powerful symbol of our wild heritage. It is vital they make a full recovery so they don't slide back towards extinction," Bonnie Rice, an official with the Sierra Club chapter in Montana, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Dan Ashe, now head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told Reuters in a 2010 interview that the Obama administration would seek to lift Endangered Species Act protections from both wolves and grizzlies in the Yellowstone area.
Wolves were de-listed in Idaho and Montana in 2011 and in Wyoming the following year.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Philip Barbara)