U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of the court for the district of Montana ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to restore federal protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, blocking the first grizzly hunt planned in the continental United States since 1991.
The Yellowstone population of grizzly bears was given federal protection in 1975 under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), when FWS listed it as an endangered species.
With bear populations exceeding the agency’s recovery goals, FWS determined in 2007 federal, state, and private conservation efforts had succeeded, and it removed the bear from the endangered species list, turning management over to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Environmental activists sued to block the delisting, and a federal judge ordered the protections to remain in place while FWS examined the activists’ claims of threats to the bears’ survival.
In 2016, under President Barack Obama, FWS concluded it had addressed all outstanding threats to the grizzly bear population, determined Yellowstone grizzlies no longer required federal protections, and proposed delisting the species.
Earlier this year, the administration of President Donald Trump affirmed FWS’s decision, noting bear populations had grown dramatically to the point that there are increasing numbers of bear attacks on livestock and even people. In September 2018, for example, a Wyoming hunting guide was killed by a pair of grizzly bears.
States developed plans to keep the bears’ numbers above 600 animals, with FWS maintaining oversight to ensure grizzly bear populations do not become endangered again. To help manage the bear populations, Idaho and Wyoming scheduled limited hunts to allow the harvest of up to 23 of the more than 700 bears, to begin on September 1.
Environmental and Native American groups sued to block the hunt and challenged FWS’ delisting decision. After twice delaying the hunts, Christensen on September 24 barred the states’ hunts and directed FWS to reinstate the federal grizzly bear protections, ruling the agency had not adequately considered long-term threats to the bears’ continued survival.
Governor Calls for Reform
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead says the judge’s decision to resume federal management of grizzlies shows Congress has to reform ESA.
“Grizzly bear recovery should be viewed as a conservation success story,” Mead said in a statement. “[G]rizzly bears have exceeded every scientifically established recovery criteria … since 2003.
“Biologists correctly determined grizzly bears no longer needed ESA protections,” Mead said. “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.”
Numerous groups, including Safari Club International (SCI), had filed legal briefs supporting FWS’s delisting decision. SCI President Paul Babaz says science shows the Yellowstone grizzlies have recovered.
“The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Grizzly Bear has recovered and no longer meets the criteria for a listing as a threatened species,” said Babaz. “SCI, together with the NRA, has gone to court, not once but twice, to defend FWS’s decision to properly remove the bear population from the threatened species list.
“The states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana have the expertise to manage the species and but for the decision of a Montana district court would be doing so now,” Babaz said.
History Repeating Itself
The grizzly bear saga is similar to the legal battle FWS fought with environmental lobbyists in its bid to delist gray wolves in the same region.
After federal courts delivered repeated victories to environmental activist groups that challenged FWS’s multiple attempts to remove federal protections from gray wolves in the Yellowstone region, Congress intervened in 2011, passing a law codifying FWS’s decision to delist the wolves and giving management to the states, effectively barring courts from reinstating federal wolf protections.
In a possible repeat of history, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) introduced legislation in September upholding FWS’s grizzly bear delisting decision.
“Today, I introduced the Grizzly Bear State Management Act, which directs the Department of the Interior to reissue the rule delisting grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and prohibits any judicial review of this decision,” Cheney said in a press release. “This year, the … USFWS determined that, ‘The population … meets all the criteria for delisting.’
“The decision by a federal district court judge in Montana to re-list the grizzly ignores science,” said Cheney. “My bill will stop this abuse of the court system and put management of the grizzly back in the hands of experts in Wyoming.”
SCI supports Cheney’s bill, says Babaz.
“If Cheney’s bill is the most effective and expeditious way to prevent endless litigation and a permanent home for grizzlies on the threatened list, then SCI supports this legislative solution for grizzly conservation,” Babaz said.
‘Congress Needs to Fix ESA’
By blocking justified species delisting decisions, environmentalists are harming the very species they say they care about, says Daren Bakst, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“When it comes to conserving species, there seems to be an endless attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Bakst. “Make no mistake, there has been a victory. For more than a decade, both Republican and Democrat administrations have sought to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear because of their successful recovery.
“Unfortunately, environmental groups continue to try and block the delisting, with their actions only serving to divert resources away from protecting species that are actually endangered,” Bakst said. “Congress needs to fix ESA and the flawed implementation of this poorly designed statute.”
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute.