Reversing feds, judge puts grizzlies back on endangered species list

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A federal judge has reinstated endangered species protections for grizzly bears in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, ending any chance of a hunt this year — and possibly for years to come.

U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen ruled Monday that federal wildlife managers acted illegally and illogically when they delisted the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears last year.

At the outset of his 48-page order, Christensen said he knows many people have strong feelings about grizzly bears, “from ranchers and big game hunters to conservationists and animal rights activists.”

Many of those strong feelings were expressed immediately after the judge issued his decision — with reactions ranging from outrage to joy — but Christensen stressed that he was only ruling on the law.

“Although this order may have impacts throughout grizzly country and beyond, this case is not about the ethics of hunting, and it is not about solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts as a practical or philosophical matter,” Christensen wrote.

The judge said his only concern was to answer a yes or no question: Did the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “exceed its legal authority” in delisting the Yellowstone area’s grizzly bears?

Christensen said they did, in three different ways.

First, he said Fish and Wildlife officials failed to adequately consider how fewer protections for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would impact other pockets of the species across the rest of the continental U.S.

“The Service does not have unbridled discretion to draw boundaries around every potentially healthy population of a listed species without considering how that boundary will affect the members of the species on either side of it,” Christensen wrote.

Second, Judge Christensen said Fish and Wildlife “illegally negotiated” a deal with Wyoming, Montana and Idaho officials about the way they estimate the grizzly bear population. The agency initially said that, if scientists start using a different model for estimating the number of grizzlies, the old numbers would be “recalibrated” to be an apples-to-apples comparison to the new numbers; that way, a switch to a less conservative model wouldn’t make it look like there was a sudden surge in bears.

However, the provision about recalibration was eventually dropped from the plan “in response to political pressure” from state officials, Christensen said, citing internal government emails made a part of the court record. (The government said the emails had been misconstrued.)

“Rather than maintain heightened protections in the face of a recognized threat to the health of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly, the Service accepted a ‘compromise’ that was in effect a capitulation,” Christensen wrote, adding later, “All available evidence demonstrates that the Service made its decision not on the basis of science or the law but solely in reaction to the states’ hardline position on recalibration.”

Finally, he said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s final rule didn’t include enough of a commitment to ensuring that the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population remains genetically diverse. He faulted the Fish and Wildlife Service for saying that it would only bring in (“translocate”) grizzlies from other ecosystems as a last resort — if there are signs that genetic diversity among the Yellowstone area’s bears is dropping.

“In short, the Service has failed to demonstrate that genetic diversity within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, long-recognized as a threat to the Greater Yellowstone grizzly's continued survival, has become a non-issue,” Christensen wrote.

The judge, who presides in Missoula, Montana, had temporarily halted planned grizzly hunts in Wyoming and Idaho in late August while he worked on his ruling. (Montana had decided to forgo a hunt this year.) Monday’s order from Christensen was not particularly surprising: In his earlier, temporary injunctions, the judge hinted that he would ultimately rule in favor of the environmental groups and Native American tribes who challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist the Yellowstone ecosystem’s bears.

Whether they expected it or not, Wyoming officials expressed disappointment with Monday’s ruling.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead used the news to call for an update of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which guided much of Christensen’s ruling.

“Biologists correctly determined grizzly bears no longer needed ESA protections,” Mead said in a Monday evening statement. “The decision to return grizzly bears to the list of threatened and endangered species is further evidence that the ESA is not working as its drafters intended. Congress should modernize the ESA so we can celebrate successes and focus our efforts on species in need.”

The governor noted that the state has invested about $50 million to recover and manage the bears. Additionally, he pointed out that the estimated number of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem rose from as few as 136 bears when the species was listed in 1975 to more than 700 today.

“Grizzly bear recovery should be viewed as a conservation success story,” Mead said.

State officials celebrated the grizzly bear’s recovery and, after an exhausting public feedback campaign, planned the first hunt of the species in more than four decades to start on Sept. 1. Support for the hunt was high in Park County, but unpopular outside of state, according to the feedback Wyoming and Game and Fish Department received.

Scott Talbott, director of the Game and Fish, called Christensen’s decision “unfortunate.”

“Game and Fish is a strong proponent of all wildlife management being led by people who live in this state and having management decisions made at the local level,” Talbott said.

However, the environmental groups and tribes who challenged the delisting contend that Yellowstone area grizzly bears are not yet fully recovered and had criticized the planned hunts as overly aggressive. Those groups declared Christensen’s ruling to be a win for the species.

“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, who argued the case for the plaintiffs. “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.”

Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said grizzly bears are “nowhere near recovery.”

“These beautiful and beleaguered animals certainly shouldn’t be shot for cheap thrills or a bearskin rug,” Santarsiere said in a statement.

Bart Melton, the northern Rockies regional director for National Parks Conservation Association, said federal wildlife managers should “go back to the drawing board to hopefully consider what research — such as the long-term impacts of climate change on the population — must be considered to ensure a healthy long-term future for Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies.”

In the wake of Monday’s ruling, Game and Fish officials said all law enforcement incidents involving grizzly bears will return to the oversight of the Fish and Wildlife Service, with the Game and Fish continuing to provide management assistance as needed.

Judge Christensen’s ruling marked the second time in roughly nine years that a Montana judge has overturned the federal government’s attempt to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the Yellowstone area’s bears. Under President George W. Bush, Fish and Wildlife delisted the grizzlies in 2007, but a different Montana judge reversed that decision in 2009; the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed that federal wildlife managers had failed to explain the impact that a decline in whitebark pine nuts would have on the species.

President Barack Obama’s Fish and Wildlife Service worked toward delisting the Wyoming, Montana and Idaho bears once again, but the agency didn’t finish the work until after President Donald Trump took office last year.

(Tribune Staff Writer Mark Davis contributed reporting.)

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