A proposed Yellowstone grizzly hunt in Idaho and Wyoming was blocked for two weeks by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, who ruled more consideration was needed about the decision to delist the bears by the federal government and turn management over to the states.
Delisting Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies has been a contentious issue since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted in 2017 to remove Endangered Species protections. Several advocacy groups have worked to place the grizzlies back under protection,
“We applaud Judge Christensen’s decision to hit the pause button,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, one of the groups challenging the hunt. “There is simply no need to rush into a grizzly bear hunt, with potentially devastating consequences for this iconic species, when the merits of that hunt are being reviewed in federal court.”
Idaho and Wyoming had scheduled a bear hunt for tomorrow, with Idaho issuing a single permit and Wyoming issuing 23 licenses, with a quota of 12 bears.
Grizzly bears were first protected in the lower 48 states as an endangered species in 1975, when approximately 150 grizzlies were estimated to survive in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The population slowly grew to 700 bears, with USFWS officials arguing was enough of a stable base to allow delisting in 2016. Without protections, grizzly-bear management came under the purview of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, which passed on establishing a bear hunt.
For the advocacy groups, the issue isn’t totally the current population, but the future of the species in a changing world. Also—and this was a key point for Christensen—the current population is limited to 2 percent of its traditional range, and the decision by the USFWS did not consider the rest of the grizzly population in the lower 48. A decision from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., last fall affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a delisting of Great Lakes gray wolves was in error, as it did not take into account other wolf populations in the United States. The original decision to protect U.S. grizzlies covered all grizzly populations, including the 1,000 or so grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, but the delisting decision was specific to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies. That decision regarding gray-wolf delisting was cited by Christensen in his decision to issue the 14-day delay.
According to the Western Environmental Law Center, grizzlies in the Yellowstone region remain threatened by dwindling food sources, climate change, small population size, isolation, habitat loss and fragmentation, and high levels of human-caused mortality. The Yellowstone population is isolated and has yet to connect to bears elsewhere in the United States, including to bears in and around Glacier National Park. Grizzlies also have yet to reclaim key historic habitats, including the Bitterroot Range along the Montana-Idaho border.
And, despite the uncertainty regarding protection, the grizzly population has been fluctuating in recent years, approximately 690 grizzly bears resided in the Greater Yellowstone region, down from 2015’s count of 717 bears. The last three years had near record-breaking grizzly mortality, with at least 41 bears killed in 2017, and an additional 15 listed as probable mortalities, according to the Western Environmental Law Center.
“This case is about giving the Yellowstone grizzly a real chance to reclaim its place on the North American landscape, connecting with other grizzly subpopulations, and ensuring its habitat and nutritional needs are met in light of a changing climate,” said Dr. Sara Johnson, Director of Native Ecosystems Council.
“A Temporary Restraining Order is essential to protecting our religious and spiritual freedoms, and treaty rights in Yellowstone. You can’t resurrect a trophy hunted grizzly. That damage is irreparable. This sacred being is considered to be a deity by many tribes, not a rug. How can there not be irreparable harm to your religion if others are killing god?” said Chief Stan Grier, Chief of the Piikani Nation and President of the Blackfoot Confederacy Chiefs.
Image of s grizzly in the Hayden Valley courtesy National Park Service,