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Twenty-three grizzly bears have been permanently spared from a trophy hunt that was scheduled to begin in the greater Yellowstone area on September 1, thanks to a U.S. District Court ruling that found in favor of conservation groups and tribes on Tuesday. But the bigger triumph for grizzly advocates is that the entire population of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears—between 700 and 1,000 individuals—will once again receive federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Judge Dana Christensen ruled that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service acted “arbitrarily and capriciously,” and ultimately exceeded its legal authority, when it delisted the Yellowstone grizzly last year. “By delisting the Greater Yellowstone grizzly without analyzing how delisting would affect the remaining members of the lower-48 grizzly designation the USFWS failed to consider how reduced protections in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would impact the other grizzly populations,” he wrote in the 48-page ruling.
The verdict came after a nearly one-month stay of the highly controversial hunt, while Christensen deliberated on the evidence and arguments presented by a coalition of plaintiffs, led by the Crow Indian Tribe, on whether the grizzly should return to its “threatened” status. Had the hunt begun as scheduled, 22 hunters who drew tags in the Wyoming lottery, and one who drew a tag in Idaho, would have been allowed to bag a bear between September 1 and mid-November. The state of Montana, where Yellowstone’s grizzlies also live, had opted to forego a trophy hunt this season.
“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,” wrote Christensen. Central to his ruling, rather, was that the USFWS had not applied the best available science to estimate the size of the population (bears are notoriously hard to count and the USFWS has long struggled with this). Plus, the long-term survival of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly depends on the introduction of new genetic material, which the USFWS did not logically address when it delisted the island-population of bears. Yellowstone’s grizzlies have not yet moved outside of the ecosystem’s boundaries to breed with bears farther north, limited by roads and cities.
The recovery status of the Yellowstone grizzly bear has been a hot-button topic in the conservation world for more than a decade—so much so that this delisting and re-listing debacle isn’t the first of its kind. In 2007, under the Bush administration, the Yellowstone grizzly bear was also unceremoniously kicked off the Endangered Species list. But environmental groups sued the USFWS and won. In that case, the judge found that the USFWS had not adequately considered the potential loss of white bark pine nuts—one of Yellowstone grizzlies’ key foods—from fungus and bark beetles when it removed protections. In 2009, the bears were back on the list. Shortly thereafter, under the Obama Administration, work began once again to remove the bear. In this case, though, Christensen’s ruling unearths some deeper questions about the connectivity of bears.
The Lower 48 grizzly bear was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. But in the early 1990s, wildlife managers divided the bear into five “distinct population segments” for recovery purposes—Yellowstone, Bitterroot, Selkirk/Cabinet-Yaak, the North Cascades, and Northern Continental Divide. Each group had its own conservation plan. The USFWS has since been using these same delineations as a tool for delisting the population groups one by one—something that had never been done before, leading many to question the legality of this method of removing protections. (A District Court ruling last year on the Great Lakes gray wolf population segment set a precedent that this method is indeed illegal.)
The feds have been keen to hold up the Yellowstone grizzly bear as a national success story—one meant to bolster support for the Endangered Species Act. Without being able to show species recovery, the USFWS risks losing public support—and funding—for the Act and its conservation programs. Environmental groups, meanwhile, believe that the Yellowstone grizzly bear has been caught up in a states’-rights battle, in which states want the power to manage wildlife without federal interference. In Wyoming and Idaho, this means administering a trophy hunt and gaining revenue. In addition, states have expressed concerns over public safety if too many grizzlies are roaming the woods. Earlier this month, a grizzly bear killed a Wyoming hunting guide near Jackson Hole.
But by taking a population-group approach to removing protections, the USFWS hasn’t been focusing as much on connectivity as they should have. Such linkages provide new genetic material that helps populations thrive. Judge Christensen noted there were once 50,000 grizzlies living in America and that it would be “simplistic at best and disingenuous at worst” to not take into account the populations of grizzlies outside of Yellowstone when considering stripping bears of federal protection. Fewer than 1,200 grizzlies remain outside of Yellowstone, and most of those are in the Northern Continental Divide population group in Montana—another island population. Most of these other four groups have not seen improvement since the 1970s, with the North Cascades group believed to have no grizzlies left whatsoever.
Ultimately, this ruling will have profound implications for other grizzly populations and the United States and possibly the Endangered Species Act as a whole. The USFWS had also been preparing to delist the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies. It’s likely this ruling will halt those plans. On the flip side, the Trump Administration has been working to weaken the ESA through a number of House bills over the past year. This ruling could buoy arguments that the ESA isn’t effective at recovering species.
“The Department of the Interior can now 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,” Bart Melton, Northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.
In the months ahead, the USFWS can either appeal this decision, or revise its science and strategy, if and when it applies to remove protections from the bears again.