BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Native American groups are pressing lawmakers in Congress to adopt permanent protections for grizzly bears, a species widely revered by tribes but that has been proposed for hunting in Wyoming and Idaho.
Tribal representatives were due Wednesday before a House subcommittee to testify in support of legislation that would block grizzly hunting in the Lower 48 states, regardless of the species' population size.
Grizzlies play a central role in the traditions and ceremonies of many tribes, some of which refer to the animals as "Uncle" and consider them to be healers, said former Hopi Tribe chairman Benjamin Nuvamsa.
"It's like the eagle; we don't shoot them because it's that sacred," said Nuvamsa, a member of the tribe's Hopi Bear Clan. "It has a really, really deep meaning for us and we have to preserve and respect it."
There's growing pressure from state officials in the Northern Rockies to allow hunting because of grizzly attacks on livestock and occasionally people.
Last fall, a federal judge in Montana blocked grizzly hunts days before they were scheduled to begin. The ruling also restored threatened species status for about 700 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park.
An appeal filed by attorneys for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Grizzly bears were nearly exterminated across much of the U.S. by hunting and trapping early last century. They received federal protections in 1975 and have since slowly rebounded in portions of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Grizzly hunting is allowed in Alaska.
The measure to make protections permanent is sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. The Arizona Democrat said the intent was to recognize and honor the bear's unique place in Native American tradition, by giving them protections beyond what's offered under the Endangered Species Act.
"The pressure from Fish and Wildlife is going to continue in this administration and it's going to continue for delisting," said Grijalva, referring to the agency's attempts to revoke the bruins' threatened species status. Such a move would transfer authority over the animals to state game agencies.
Hunting grizzlies "is not a sport to native peoples," Grijalva added.
Jonathan Wood, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, said the measure would discourage states and landowners from cooperating in future efforts to restore imperiled species and undermine the goal of restoring grizzlies to more of their historical range.
Grijalva has offered similar legislation before but it went nowhere. It stands a better chance of advancing with Democrats now in control of the House. It's expected to face a tougher road in the Senate and draw strong opposition from lawmakers representing Western states.
"It's difficult to see how this passes the Senate or gets signed by the president," Wood said.