U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen restored Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears, and in the process permanently ended planned trophy hunts in Idaho and Wyoming.
In his ruling, Christensen made it clear he was ruling on one central issue: whether the United States Fish and Wildlife Service exceed its legal authority when it delisted the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear. The conclusion: yes. The process for delisting calls for USFWS to consider the effect on all grizzlies in the Lower 48, not just the Yellowstone grizzlies, and the evidence was clear that the USFWS skipped this step in the evaluation process.
“The ESA does not permit the Service to use the distinct population segment designation to circumvent analysis of a species’ overall well-being,” Christensen wrote. By not considering the best available science, USFWS officials dropped “a key commitment–the commitment to ensure that any population estimator adopted in the future is calibrated to the estimator used to justify delisting–the Service illegally negotiated away its obligation to apply the best available science in order to reach an accommodation with the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Second, the Service relied on two studies to support its determination that the Greater Yellowstone grizzly can remain independent and genetically self-sufficient.”
Idaho and Wyoming had scheduled a bear hunt beginning Sept. 1, with Idaho issuing a single permit and Wyoming issuing 23 licenses, with a quota of 12 bears. Those hunts were delayed while Christensen deliberated; they are now cancelled.
“The importance of today’s ruling cannot be overstated: the very bears essential to achieve connectivity between still-struggling isolated grizzly populations would have died at the hands of trophy hunters. Now, not only do the Yellowstone region’s bears have a fighting chance, so too do grizzlies across the lower 48,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We are gratified the court saw the numerous flaws in the Service’s decision, and stepped in to stop a cascade of events that would have put this already struggling icon of the West closer to extinction.”
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 (which authorized Yellowstone grizzly hunts) and Montana, which passed on establishing a bear hunt. And while no hunting would have happened in Yellowstone National Park, they would have been allowed in areas directly adjacent to the Park.
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, allowing for Yellowstone grizzly hunts. That decision regarding gray-wolf delisting was cited by Christensen in his ruling.
“The grizzly is a big part of why the Yellowstone region remains among our nation’s last great wild places,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso via press release, who argued the case. “This is a victory for the bears and for people from all walks of life who come to this region to see the grizzly in its natural place in the world.”
“The Northern Cheyenne Nation views the grizzly bear as a relative entitled to our respect and protection from harm,” said Lawrence Killsback, President of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, via press release. “We have a responsibility to speak for the bears, who cannot speak for themselves. Today we celebrate this victory and will continue to advocate on behalf of the Yellowstone grizzly bears until the population is recovered, including within the Tribe’s ancestral homeland in Montana and other states.”
Image of Yellowstone grizzly courtesy National Park Service.