Forty years ago Saturday President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, credited with saving hundreds of U.S. species from extinction, including the bald eagle, the American alligator, Florida panthers, sea otters, pumas and manatees.
The anniversary comes as wildlife officials in the northern Rockies are considering lifting protections for hundreds of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, a move environmental groups decry as short-sighted. The grizzlies were first granted federal protections in 1975 after they had been wiped out across much of their historical range.
They have since made a slow comeback, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to advance plans on whether to take more than 700 bears across the Yellowstone region of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming off the threatened-species list.
A decision is expected in January. It would open the door for limited sport hunting of the bears in the area, though protections for their habitat would remain in place.
As that battle heats up, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration celebrated the full recovery of 31 species that had hovered on the brink of extinction. The first species that was pronounced fully recovered and delisted was the brown pelican.
Today they are still working to protect 1,436 U.S. species.
One, the black-footed ferret, was originally thought to be extinct. Then in 1981 a tiny population was discovered in Wyoming. At one point there were only 18 of the ferrets, making them the rarest mammal on Earth. While still endangered today, about 1,000 of the slinky, cat-sized creatures have been reintroduced in eight states.
The grizzly debate comes as Yellowstone bears are increasingly encountering humans as the bears move down from mountain areas, causing conflicts with hunters, ranchers and tourists.
Environmental groups say the bears face an uncertain future because of declines in one of their key food sources, due to climate change. Nuts from the whitebark pine are an important part of grizzlies' diet.
As the area has warmed, the mountain pine beetle has devastated the whitebark pines, cutting into the grizzlies' food source.
However, the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee issued a report in November that found that the bears' survival is not threatened by the loss of pine nuts.
Contributing: Associated Press