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Group sues U.S. for stronger Idaho, Montana grizzly protection

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Federal protection status for a population of grizzly bears facing extinction in the mountains of Idaho and northwest Montana should be raised to endangered from threatened, environmentalists said in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday.

The Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies is asking a judge to order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to strengthen protections for the fewer than 50 grizzlies that roam the Cabinet Mountains and the Yaak River drainage.

The group also is seeking tougher restrictions on logging, road construction and other human activities on federal lands that constitute crucial habitat the bears in the so-called Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana.

Grizzly bears in 1975 were listed as threatened in the continental United States after systematic hunting, trapping and poisoning campaigns.

Just five populations of the protected bears exist in the lower 48 states, including the roughly 600 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park. U.S. wildlife managers set a recovery goal for Cabinet-Yaak bears at a minimum of 100.

The Fish and Wildlife Service last year published a report showing that the grizzlies were declining at an annual rate of about 0.8 percent and that the percentage of bears unlawfully or accidentally killed each year by humans tripled by 1999-2012 compared with 1982-1998.

A 2013 review by the service found the Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies should be upgraded to endangered from threatened but other imperiled species were of higher priority.

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

A federal-state panel that oversees grizzlies in and around Yellowstone, which spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, last year said the population is sufficiently recovered and should be removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list.

(Reporting Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Eric M. Johnson)

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