U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke declared conservation efforts to save the Yellowstone grizzly bears a success, with the animals having recovered sufficiently to remove federal protections from the bears and return responsibility to the states and tribes.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is issuing a final rule to remove the bears from the Endangered Species List (ESL). The agency determined the number of Yellowstone grizzly bears has risen from as few as 136 in 1975 to an estimated 700 today in a population that has remained relatively stable for more than a decade, according to a press release from Zinke’s office. FWS says this suggests the 22,500 square miles the Yellowstone grizzly bear population occupies is at carrying capacity. As a result, the bears meet the criteria for removal from the ESL.
“[T]his is a long time coming and very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region,” Zinke said in his statement. “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of the state, tribal, federal, and private partners.
The decision to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bears was based on multiple factors, including the number and distribution of bears throughout the ecosystem, the quantity and quality of habitat available, and the states’ commitments to manage the population sustainably in perpetuity.
‘Predictability and Flexibility’
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead says he’s proud of his state’s significant contribution to the recovery of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
“Grizzlies are now managed by experts at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in accordance with the Grizzly Bear Management Plan,” Mead told Environment & Climate News. “State management offers both predictability and flexibility, which will benefit grizzly bears, tourism, and agriculture.”
“Wyoming is committed to a recovered grizzly bear population,” said Mead.
Brian Seasholes, a policy fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, says the Yellowstone grizzly delisting will benefit both bears and landowners.
“Having grizzly bear management on private and state lands revert back to states will likely lead to management which is more flexible and sensitive to the needs of working landowners,” Seasholes said. “In turn, this will likely benefit grizzly bear conservation, because addressing peoples’ needs is a key component of any successful conservation initiative.”
Environmentalists Challenge Decision
Environmental groups are challenging the delisting decision, arguing the Yellowstone bears face continued threats to their existence from humans, climate change, and other factors, says Jonathan Wood, an attorney specializing in environmental and constitutional law at the Pacific Legal Foundation.
“Before filing a lawsuit under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, you first have to send a letter threatening the agency with a lawsuit,” said Wood. “Earthjustice filed one of those letters on behalf of itself, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Sierra Club, so I expect we will see a lawsuit at the end of August or early September.”
It’s largely a scientific dispute, Wood says, with environmentalists and the tribe claiming even though the grizzly bear population has increased substantially and occupies more territory, it’s not enough.
“Essentially, from their perspective, until a species occupies its full historic range, they are not happy,” Wood said. “So they are going to challenge the delisting.”
Replaying Gray Wolf Argument
Wood says Earthjustice is rehashing an unsuccessful argument the Humane Society made in Humane Society of the United States v. Ryan Zinke (2017), concerning the delisting of the gray wolf in the Great Lakes region.
“Earthjustice is challenging whether FWS can identify a particular population of a broader species which has recovered and delist just this part,” said Wood. “Although the D.C. Circuit Court ultimately ruled against the government’s decision to delist gray wolves in the Great Lakes region, the court said of course FWS could distinguish between different populations of species and make different determinations concerning their endangered status.
“The court ruled it doesn’t make any sense to keep restrictions in place for populations which no longer need them, and this is the same argument FWS is relying on in its grizzly bear delisting decision,” Wood said.
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.