Federal Judge Cancels Yellowstone Grizzly Hunt, Restores Species Protections

The judge found that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had acted ‘arbitrarily and capriciously’ in removing federal protections for the species

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons

Back in May, Wyoming and Idaho voted to allow grizzly bears hunts in the Yellowstone area for the first time in more than 40 years. But as Karin Brulliard reports for the Washington Post, a judge has reinstated federal protections for the grizzlies, thereby cancelling the hunts, which were scheduled to take place this month.

United States District Judge Dana Christensen ruled in favor of conservation and tribal groups that had sued the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) after it removed the grizzlies of Greater Yellowstone from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in June 2017.

The court’s decision, Christensen wrote in his ruling, was not concerned with the “ethics of hunting” or “solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts as a practical or philosophical matter.” Instead, according to Christensen, the court considered whether the USFWS had adequately assessed possible threats to the bears when it delisted the species, and ultimately determined that the USFWS had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously.”

Yellowstone grizzlies are geographically isolated, but advocates maintain that the bears are growing plentiful enough in number to start connecting and interbreeding with other grizzly populations. This could improve the genetic diversity and health of the species. Federal biologists concluded that Yellowstone grizzlies are sufficiently diverse at this time, but Christensen found that the USFWS had “cobbled together two studies to reach its determination” and had “ignored the clear concerns expressed by the studies’ authors about the long-term viability of an isolated grizzly population.”

When grizzlies of the contiguous United States were first listed as an endangered species in 1975, the bears’ numbers were in sharp decline. The species had disappeared from 98 percent of its historic range, and as few as 136 grizzlies were estimated to live in the Yellowstone area. Since then, however, the population of Yellowstone grizzlies has climbed to more than 700 bears in and around the park.

The USFWS first delisted Yellowstone grizzly bears in 2007, maintaining that the population had recovered. The move was blocked by a federal judge, who ordered protections to remain in place while the agency studied the threat posed by a decline in whitebark pine seeds, an important food source for the bears. Last year, the USFWS determined that decreased availability of the seeds did not pose a substantial threat to the bears, and moved forward with its delisting.

This decision, according to the Associated Press, transferred management of the bears over to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Wyoming subsequently sanctioned a hunt of up to 22 grizzlies. Idaho officials approved the killing of a single male grizzly. The hunts were to mark the first time since the 1970s that bears were legally hunted outside Alaska, where their killing is allowed.

Proponents of the hunts claimed that killing grizzlies would prevent populations from growing unchecked. As Brulliard of the Post points out, GOP lawmakers have also been trying to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, asserting that it imposes undue burdens on landowners and industry, and have moved to give states more power in deciding how animals and plants are protected.

Federal scientists determined that a controlled hunt would not harm Yellowstone’s grizzly populations. But the court was unconvinced; Christensen found in his ruling that the USFWS “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.”

Federal and state officials have said that they are thinking about whether or not to appeal the ruling, reports Jim Robbins of the New York Times. Conservation groups, on the other hand, are applauding the court’s decision.

“Facing ongoing threats and occupying a fraction of their historic range, grizzly bears are nowhere near recovery,” says Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which was party to the lawsuit. “These beautiful and beleaguered animals certainly shouldn’t be shot for cheap thrills or a bearskin rug.”

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