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Tribes Announce Lawsuit Against USFWS Yellowstone Grizzly Decision on Religious Grounds

A group of Native American tribes have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over Yellowstone grizzly delisting, arguing the decision violates their religious freedom.

Tribes, clans and leaders from seven U.S. states and Canada have announced they will participate in the lawsuit.

All in all, according to the Billings Gazette, 17 tribes, clans and leaders from Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico and Canada are parties to the suit, although two tribes from Nebraska and South Dakota have also agreed to sign on.

It’s the latest lawsuit against the USFWS after the agency announced they would lift protections for Yellowstone area grizzly bears and move management duties back to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

According to the Gazette, the lawsuit in particular highlights state wildlife agencies’ stated intentions to host a trophy hunting season for Yellowstone grizzlies, which they say goes against their spiritual beliefs:

The Native American plaintiffs argue that trophy hunting for grizzly bears goes against their religious and spiritual beliefs. The lawsuit filed June 30 asks a federal judge to rule that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must consider the Native Americans’ beliefs and consult adequately with them before removing grizzly protections that have been in place since 1975.

“He is our relative. For us Bear Clan members, he is our uncle,” Ben Nuvamsa, a former chairman of the Hopi Tribe in Arizona, said Wednesday. “If that bear is removed, that does impact our ceremonies in that there would not be a being, a religious icon that we would know and recognize.”

The three states have not planned any hunts for this year, but have agreed to quotas and to cease all hunting if the Yellowstone population falls below 600 bears. There are now about 700 in the region.

Basing a legal challenge of an Endangered Species Act decision on religious beliefs and inadequate tribal consultation has not been tried before, said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jeff Rasmussen. It’s an argument that differs from those of the conservation and wildlife advocacy groups who have also filed intentions to sue over last month’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision.

“They don’t feel like they’ve been listened to, both with regard to their religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs, and with regard to some of the issues in this case,” Rasmussen said. “They feel the U.S. is not listening to them, and we’re hoping to change that.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and Department of Interior officials declined to comment [to the Gazette] on the lawsuit. U.S. Department of Justice officials did not return a call or email for comment.

According to the Gazette, the tribes are also suing because they feel there was inadequate discussion between tribes and the federal government, a discussion mandated under the Endangered Species Act. Indeed, the lawsuit alleges officials only consulted with four tribes before announcing the grizzly decision. Nuvamsa said they “reneged” on the promise to reach out.

The USFWS maintains, meanwhile, that it offered “government-to-government consultation to 53 tribal governments through letters, phone calls, emails and webinars” during the period in question.

Other critics of the decision say the bear is not ready to be delisted, since its population is too small and disconnected from other grizzly populations across the Rocky Mountains and American West. Further, grizzlies are still threatened from dwindling food sources such as whitebark pine, whose population is negatively affected by climate change.

Last week, we reported a coalition of tribes and environmental groups would sue the USFWS, arguing the service is playing politics with what should be a scientific process.

Native American tribes have long opposed decisions they feel harms grizzly bears. Indeed, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) butted heads with members of the Montana legislature over the state’s decision to list hunting as an option for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears. Several tribes signed a treaty last November vowing to oppose any delisting decision.

While each state has expressed interest in hosting a limited trophy hunt season, there is (according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission) “no hurry” to implement a season.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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