Judge blocks first planned grizzly hunt in 3 decades, raises more questions on Endangered Species Act

In this July 6, 2011, file photo, a grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. On Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, a federal judge restored federal protections to grizzly bears in the Northern Rocky Mountains and blocked the first hunts planned for the animals in the Lower 48 states in almost three decades. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen's order Monday came after he had twice delayed hunts in Wyoming and Idaho just as they were set to begin. Wildlife advocates argue the bears face continued threats from climate change and loss of habitat. | Associated Press photo by Jim Urquhart, St. George News

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. judge ordered federal protections restored for grizzly bears in the Northern Rocky Mountains on Monday, a move that blocks the first grizzly hunts planned in the Lower 48 states in almost three decades.

Wyoming and Idaho had been on the cusp of allowing hunters to kill up to 23 bears this fall. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen had twice delayed the hunts, and the latest order blocking them was due to expire later this week. The hunts would have been the first in the U.S. outside Alaska since 1991.

Christensen wrote in his ruling that the case was “not about the ethics of hunting.” Rather, he said, it was about whether federal officials adequately considered threats to the species’ long-term recovery when they lifted protections for more than 700 bears living around Yellowstone National Park.

In this Sept. 25, 2013, file photo, a grizzly bear cub searches for fallen fruit beneath an apple tree a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont. On Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, a federal judge restored federal protections to grizzly bears in the Northern Rocky Mountains and blocked the first hunts planned for the animals in the Lower 48 states in almost three decades. | Photo by Alan Rogers/The Casper Star-Tribune via The Associated Press, St. George News

In the judge’s view, the answer was no.

He noted that an estimated 50,000 bears once roamed the contiguous U.S. and said it would be “simplistic at best and disingenuous at worst” not to consider the status of grizzlies outside the Yellowstone region, one of the few areas where they have bounced back.

State and federal officials reacted with disappointment. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said the ruling provided further evidence of flaws in the Endangered Species Act and the need for Congress to make changes.

“Grizzly bear recovery should be viewed as a conservation success story,” Mead said in a statement.

Read more: Utah representatives support Trump administration’s proposal to alter Endangered Species Act

A bid to remove protections for the region’s gray wolves ran into similar legal problems last decade. In that case, Congress intervened in 2011 to strip safeguards from the animals through legislation, opening the way to public wolf hunts.

Pressure to lift protections on bears and allow hunting has increased in recent years as the number of conflicts between bears and people increased. Most of those conflicts involve attacks on livestock but occasionally bears attack people, such as a Wyoming hunting guide killed earlier this month by a pair of grizzly bears.

The ruling marks a victory for wildlife advocates and Native American tribes that sued when the Interior Department last year revoked federal protections. They argued that the animals face continued threats from climate change and loss of habitat.

Tim Preso, an attorney with EarthJustice who represented many of the plaintiffs, said Christensen’s ruling made clear that the government had moved too hastily to remove protections because bears are absent from much of their historical range.

“Putting the blinders on to everything other than Yellowstone grizzlies was illegal,” he said. “We tried to get them to put on the brakes, but they refused to do that.”

Hunting and agriculture groups and the National Rifle Association had intervened in the case seeking to keep management of grizzlies under state control.

Restoring protections will allow the grizzly population to grow unchecked, “endangering the lives and livelihoods of westerners who settled the region long ago,” said Cody Wisniewski, representing the Wyoming Farm Bureau.

The grizzlies living in and around Yellowstone were classified as a threatened species in 1975 after most bears had been killed off early last century and the population was down to just 136 animals.

Government biologists contend Yellowstone’s grizzlies are now thriving, have adapted to changes in their diet and are among the best-managed bears in the world.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Jennifer Strickland said the agency was reviewing Monday’s ruling but stood behind its decision to lift protections.

The agency initially declared a successful recovery for the Yellowstone population in 2007, but a federal judge ordered protections to remain while wildlife officials studied whether the decline of a major food source — whitebark pine seeds — could threaten the bears’ survival.

The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded last year it had addressed that and all other threats, and the agency said the grizzlies were no longer a threatened species requiring restrictive federal protections for them and their habitat.

That decision turned management of the bears over to the states, which agreed on a plan that set hunting quotas based on the number of deaths each year to ensure the population stays above 600 animals.

The federal agency has been moving toward lifting federal protections for another group of about 1,000 bears living in Montana’s Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness but it first wanted to see how Christensen ruled on the Yellowstone case.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Bishop with the Western Environmental Law Center said the agency should reconsider those plans in light of Christensen’s ruling.

“The idea of recovering grizzly bears in the Lower 48 should still be on the table. They shouldn’t get away with this piecemeal delisting approach,” Bishop said.

Written by MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press. Associated Press writers Matt Volz in Helena and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming contributed to this story.

Email: news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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5 Comments

  • Carpe Diem September 25, 2018 at 8:13 pm

    Sad that the Environmental protection laws simply turn into anti-hunting laws. From now on they will not have the same dignity.

    • Red2Blue310 September 26, 2018 at 6:49 am

      What kind of an idiot needs to eat a bear?

      • Carpe Diem September 26, 2018 at 4:28 pm

        The problem is when Environmental laws, that are meant to do good, fail to follow their promises, so then in the future, they may be easy to beat in a court of law. Depends on the Judge now. Their integrity is gone. This has happened with the wolf issue as well. It’s not about barbecue.

  • commonsense September 25, 2018 at 8:28 pm

    Another failure by congress to act even though they are the branch of government who should make law. The people elect a new congress every two years and it should decide issues of law. Federal judges are not elected by the people and are usually political appointments. They should interpret the laws set by our elected congress.

    • Carpe Diem September 26, 2018 at 4:32 pm

      It’s almost like Obama made liberal judges drunk with power. More crazy stuff happening all the time. Guess they think it’s their way to “Resist”.

      In the meantime, under Obama, tons of elections including Governorships, Congress and POTUS, popped up for the GOP. Looks like midterms and 2020 will as well. OOPS

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