US proposes lifting endangered species protections for grizzlies around Yellowstone National Park
A grizzly bear roams through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming on May 18, 2014. (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed on Thursday stripping Endangered Species Act protections from the grizzly bear in and around Yellowstone National Park, saying the animal's numbers have rebounded sufficiently in recent decades.

The number of grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone region, encompassing parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, has grown to an estimated 700 or more bears today, up from as few as 176 in 1975 when they were formally listed as a threatened species throughout the Lower 48 states.

At that time, the grizzly had been hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction. Its current estimated population well exceeds the government's recovery goal of 500 animals in the region.

Sportsmen and ranchers, who make up a powerful political constituency in Western states, have strongly advocated de-listing grizzlies, arguing that their increasing 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 the national park boundaries.

Native American tribes, which revere the bear, also have voiced skepticism about removing the grizzly's threatened status.

But Fish and Wildlife Service, a U.S. Interior Department agency, said population and habitat monitoring has found that grizzly bears have more than doubled their range since the mid-1970s, occupying more than 22,500 square miles (58,275 sq km) of the Yellowstone ecosystem. That area is larger than the land mass of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, combined, the agency said.

(Reporting by Ruffin Prevost; Writing and additional reporting in Los Angeles by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sandra Maler)