The federal judge presiding over the Yellowstone grizzly lawsuits wants the case to be resolved before Wyoming’s anticipated hunting season this fall.
To that end, he has taken several measures to expedite the case.
According to the Missoulian, in a hearing yesterday, March 13, 2018, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen denied a request from the federal government to delay proceedings on the six lawsuits challenging the decision to remove protections from Yellowstone grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act. The judge also rejected three claims to decide the case on technicalities. Finally, all parties will have to pare their arguments down into a set of briefs ahead of a scheduled hearing in August. From the Missoulian:
Tuesday’s hearing brought together federal lawyers representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service against the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Humane Society of the U.S., Wild Earth Guardians and an independent attorney from Chicago. On the sidelines, lawyers from Safari Club International, the National Rifle Association and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation also sought intervener status in the case.
It’s worth noting that these changes don’t guarantee the case won’t last until the start of Wyoming’s hunting season. But it does simplify matters.
Yellowstone grizzly bears lost their endangered species protections in June 2017. Management of the bears subsequently transferred to the states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho in August 2017. Environmental and animal advocacy groups have fiercely criticized the decision, arguing the bears still warrant protections and that removing them—especially now—puts the population at grave risk.
Under state management, for instance, farmers and ranchers have more ability to kill grizzlies they perceive as threatening their crop or livestock, which could lead to unanticipated declines in the Yellowstone grizzly population. Christensen acknowledged this risk in his push to speed up the case.
The loss of ESA protections and transfer of management means states could potentially run a trophy hunting season on the bears. Indeed, as mentioned, Wyoming has drafted hunting regulations for the fall, where up to 24 grizzlies could be killed. Subsequently, Idaho announced a one bear hunting season. Montana declined to host a hunting season, however, citing the ongoing litigation.
In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in December 2017 that it would review its grizzly decision in light of a ruling about Great Lakes wolves. In the wolf ruling, a federal judge argued the agency erred in stripping protections for a subpopulation without “considering the impact the move would have on wolf recovery elsewhere in the country.” This line of thinking can be found in many of the grizzly suits.
The agency opened public comment on the matter and expected to announce its revised decision by March 31. However, now that decision is delayed, due to the amount of public comment received. This is part of the reason the federal government asked for a delay on proceedings, something Christensen argued vehemently against. From the Missoulian:
“How is this public comment period somehow going to shed any light or give any assistance at all with the issues in this lawsuit?” Christensen asked U.S. Department of Justice Attorney Coby Howell. “When we’re talking about the application of a circuit court opinion, that’s a decision I’m going to have to make. How is public comment going to help me out?”
Howell replied that FWS needed until at least April 30 to analyze the comments and then either add more findings to the existing delisting rule or start the process of withdrawing it. Doing so would ensure the court had a fully prepared agency rule to consider, he said.
But the government’s opponents pounced all over that idea. Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien called the delay request an opportunity “to cook up justifications to prop up a decision they’ve already made.”
Christensen concluded by telling the room of attorneys he made his decision to avoid a flurry of injunctions in the fall, when Wyoming is slated to open its hunting season.
“I’ll do anything I can to avoid that,” Christensen said, according to the Missoulian. “You’d be writing briefs when you’d rather be with your kids at the end of August. And I’d be getting out emergency orders, opposed to logically and methodically proceeding with the case. I want to proceed in a manner we all agree with, leading to a hearing and ultimately a decision.”