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By Laura Zuckerman
PINEDALE, Wyo. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge this week will hear arguments in a case aiming to restore protections for Yellowstone area grizzlies or clear the way for trophy hunting of the famed bears for the first time in over 40 years.
The Trump administration last year removed the roughly 700 bears in and around the national park from the U.S. list of endangered and threatened species, saying the three states bordering the park could manage their populations. Two of those, Wyoming and Idaho, plan trophy hunts beginning Sept. 1.
The decision sparked lawsuits by Native Americans and conservation groups but was hailed by states, sportsmen and ranchers worried grizzlies will prey on livestock.
Energy, mining and logging interests also chafed under restrictions placed on lands inhabited by the bears.
Slow to reproduce, grizzlies number fewer than 2,000 in the Lower 48 states. That compares to an historic high of 100,000 before extermination campaigns brought their numbers to just several hundred by 1975, when they came under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
A hearing tied to lawsuits challenging the delisting is scheduled for Thursday in U.S. District Court in Montana, where a judge may rule that day on restoring protections to Yellowstone grizzlies or leave their status – and hunting plans – unchanged.
American Indian tribes say their history is deeply intertwined with the grizzly, at the centre of religious traditions and cultural practices.
"We feel all our beliefs, medicines, ceremonies and ancestral ways of life are being disrespected ... because a few people want to kill grizzlies ... to mount their heads on walls or make rugs for their floors," said Crawford White of the Northern Arapaho Elders Society, which is challenging the delisting as a violation of the Wyoming tribe's religious freedom.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife managers say Yellowstone area grizzlies have exceeded population targets for recovery and measures now in place ensure the massive, hump-shouldered mammals will continue to roam the region's river valleys and mountain forests.
Wyoming wildlife commissioners met with tribal leaders before allowing up to 22 grizzlies to be killed, said Renny MacKay, spokesman for the state's Game and Fish Department.
More than 7,000 people have applied for the 22 Wyoming licenses, including those seeking to "shoot" a bear with a camera to save them from being killed and to honour their celebrity status in Yellowstone, where wildlife watching is worth tens of millions of dollars annually.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)