A US government plan to lift protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park has been slammed by environmentalists and Indian tribes.
Much of the discontent has focused on the prospect of grizzlies in the region becoming open to trophy hunting under state management plans put in place once federal safeguards are removed under the Endangered Species Act.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service formally proposed in March that grizzlies in the Yellowstone area - spanning parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho - be removed from the list of threatened species, citing data showing their numbers have rebounded to healthy levels.
Some 700 grizzlies currently frequent the Yellowstone area, up from as few as 136 bears when they were listed as threatened throughout the Lower 48 states in 1975, after decades of being hunted, trapped and poisoned to near-extinction.
Sportsmen and ranchers, who wield considerable political clout in the region, point to growing bear-human conflicts as grizzlies expand their territories in search of food.
Environmentalists argue grizzlies' recovery could falter if they are forced to contend with new pressures posed by hunting of the species outside the park.
They caution that grizzlies already face a decline in a key food source, whitebark pine nuts, due to climate change.
Conservation groups and Native American tribes are opposed to the plan.
"A lot of grizzlies will be killed; it's a step back for grizzly recovery," says Bonnie Rice, a Yellowstone expert for the Sierra Club.
Fish and Wildlife has received over 63,000 public submissions on the de-listing plan, far more than typically received for a regulatory proposal, though a spokeswoman said the breakdown between of pro and con was unknown.
Supporters of de-listing said prudent bear management requires a levelling off of the population.