Greater Yellowstone Grizzlies to Stay on Endangered List

Grizzly bear photo by Sam Parks.

One would suspect that this ruling will have a significant impact on many U.S. Forest Service forest plan revision processes currently on-going in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Here’s a press release from Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians, which is also pasted below.

MISSOULA, Mont. —Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Trump administration and state of Wyoming’s appeal of a 2018 decision restoring endangered species protections for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bears. The original decision halted states’ planned trophy hunts in the ecosystem, which would have harmed other imperiled populations of grizzly bears.

WildEarth Guardians, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, one of the plaintiffs and victors of the original lawsuit, played a central role in the appeal process, one of the first COVID-19 “virtual court hearing” scenarios.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bears in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana totals about 728 animals, up from its historic low of 136 when endangered species protections were enacted in 1975. In the original case, opponents of federal protections for grizzly bears argued that protections were no longer necessary and that a sport hunting season to effectively manage down the population was justified despite the fact that the population represents only a fraction of its historical abundance, and has yet to achieve connectivity to neighboring populations near Glacier National Park and elsewhere.

The recovery of other grizzly bear populations depends heavily on inter-population connectivity and genetic exchange. Absent endangered species protections, dispersing grizzlies essential to species recovery would have to pass through a killing zone outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks where Wyoming and Idaho rushed to approve trophy hunts.

“Grizzlies require continued protection under federal law until the species as a whole is rightfully recovered,” said Matthew Bishop, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The best available science says not only are grizzly bears still recovering, but they also need our help to bounce back from an extinction threat humans caused in the first place. Misrepresenting the facts to promote killing threatened grizzly bears for fun is disgraceful. I’m glad the judges didn’t fall for it.”

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the original ruling that the delisting was premature, did not rely on the best available science, and improperly failed to analyze the impact killing grizzlies just outside the safety of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks would have on other imperiled populations in the lower 48 states. The Ninth Circuit wrote: “…because there are no concrete, enforceable mechanisms in place to ensure long-term genetic health of the Yellowstone grizzly, the district court correctly concluded that the 2017 Rule is arbitrary and capricious in that regard. Remand to the FWS is necessary for the inclusion of adequate measures to ensure long term protection [p. 45].”

“WildEarth Guardians applauds the decision of the 9th Circuit Court—a triumph of science over politics—in ensuring that Yellowstone grizzly bears are allowed to truly recover and thrive,” said Sarah McMillan, conservation director for WildEarth Guardians. “Grizzly bears are an iconic species whose very existence is intertwined with the concept of endangered species protection in the United States. This decision solidifies the belief of numerous wildlife advocates and native tribes that protecting grizzly bears should be based upon science and the law and not the whims of special interest groups, such as those who want to trophy hunt these great bears.”

Grizzlies in the Yellowstone region remain threatened by dwindling food sources, climate change, small population size, isolation, habitat loss and fragmentation, and high levels of human-caused mortality. The Yellowstone population is isolated and has yet to connect to bears elsewhere in the U.S., including to bears in and around Glacier National Park. Grizzlies also have yet to reclaim key historic habitats, including the Bitterroot Range along the Montana-Idaho border.

Hunted, trapped, and poisoned to near extinction, grizzly bear populations in the contiguous U.S. declined drastically from nearly 50,000 bears to only a few hundred by the 1930s. In response to the decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, a move that likely saved them from extinction. The species has since struggled to hang on, with only roughly 1,800 currently surviving in the lower 48 states. Grizzlies remain absent from nearly 98 percent of their historic range.

A copy of today’s ruling is here:

7 thoughts on “Greater Yellowstone Grizzlies to Stay on Endangered List”

  1. Meanwhile the North Cascades population is being written off:

    U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt told a meeting of community members in Omak, Washington, that his agency will not conduct the environmental impact statement needed to move forward with the plan to reintroduce grizzly bears into the North Cascades ecosystem in Washington. The reason appears to be, “the people who live and work in north central Washington have made their voices clear that they do not want grizzly bears,” which of course should carry little weight since this population is necessary for recovery. In any case, this is disputed: “This is not an issue that has just west side support,” Gunnell said, referring to more populous and liberal western Washington. “Public support is strong.” (I wonder what the Forest Service had to say.)

    • “Reintroduce” isn’t the right word, since some grizzly bears already live in the North Cascades area.

      “Fewer than 10 grizzlies are thought to live across 9,800 square miles anchored by North Cascades National Park, Conservation Northwest said.”

      Are they isolated from other grizzly populations? Well, grizzly bears live in Canada, just across the border (the BC government lists them as threatened in that area). Bears there probably face similar pressures, but there are bears in that area, and they probably interact with US bears.

    • OK, Jon, I don’t get it.. what does it mean to be “necessary for recovery”? Do they have to be in specific locations? They seem to be expanding, for example, in Wyoming. Do they have to be everywhere they were historically to be “recovered”? Very confusing.

      Stepping back from ESA to general principles, I think “people not wanting them there” would tend to carry weight in most changes that affect them (think “local people don’t want a mine, or a prison, or a ski area.”) Interesting question, in your case local people’s views should “carry little weight”. I think most people are for protecting species at risk of extinction. But thinking they should be everywhere they used to be (think bison, for example) when that means that your life or livelihood will be impacted, is quite a different thing in my view.

  2. The grizzly bear recovery plan requires a self-sustaining population in the North Cascades in order for the species to be recovered. Here’s some background Q & As, including “why here?”

    “The 1982 Recovery Plan focused on recovering grizzly bears in ecosystems where they currently lived or had likely occurred in the recent past. In 1991, the North Cascades ecosystem was selected by the IGBC as one of the six areas where recovery would occur, based on a five-year study that found bears still lived in the North Cascades and the habitat is capable of supporting a population. The North Cascades chapter of the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan calls for completion of an EIS to evaluate alternatives for recovering the North Cascades grizzly bear population and funds are now available to complete this EIS.”

    I tend to be against NIMBYism of any kind, but especially where there’s a law that defines a higher public purpose for whatever it is that is being sited, and especially where there really aren’t any other choices of locations. And also where a public process would be used to make a decision. Like what would have happened here if Bernhardt hadn’t arbitrarily cut the process short.

    The word “reintroduce” was used in this article, but the term used in the EIS process is “restoration.” That probably has some legal significance; if the species is already present, they can’t classify it as an “experimental” population, which could involve less protection.

  3. A good question. Implementation of specific provisions in recovery plans is not considered mandatory, so they don’t require NEPA, but there probably was a public process of some kind. Your next question would be, “if they’re not mandatory, then why is it a problem if they now decide not to follow the plan?” There is some legal leverage under §7(a)(1) of ESA which requires federal agencies (here that is the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Park Service) to use their authorities in order to carry out programs to recover threatened and endangered species. There haven’t been many court cases on this, but the FWS lost a case involving red wolf recovery in North Carolina in part because of “failing to administer the red wolf recovery program in furtherance of the purposes of the ESA…”

  4. It didn’t take long for a lawsuit threat from the Center for Biological Diversity:

    “The swift termination of this crucial program to recover grizzly bears in the North Cascades defies science and law,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center. “If this program isn’t restored, grizzly bears are likely to completely disappear from the Pacific Northwest.”

    The notice of intent to file a lawsuit alleges that the cancellation of the program violates the Endangered Species Act, which requires federal agencies to conserve listed species.


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