Last week, a federal judge in Missoula smacked down a Trump administration effort to delay a ruling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting of Yellowstone grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act. The feds were hoping that asking the public to comment on the recent ESA ruling on wolves in the upper Midwest would forestall legal accountability, but the judge doesn’t seem to be buying it. Instead, he dismissed the plea to delay the case, and promised a final ruling before a hunting season could take place next fall.
Everybody, including federal agencies, seems to recognize that the grizzly delisting was illegal. It involves the same facts as a recent ruling in which the federal court system ruled that the delisting of the wolf population in the western Great Lakes was illegal. In that instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider the status of wolves across the United States, particularly wolf populations outside the western Great Lakes area, or the historic depopulation of wolves nationwide. These are the same legal problems with the grizzly delisting.
When the Service delisted the Yellowstone bears last summer, it triggered five separate lawsuits. Among conservationists, Western Watersheds Project and Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed one suit, WildEarth Guardians filed another, while the Northern Cheyenne Tribe was joined by the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and National Parks Conservation Association on a third. From an animal rights perspective, the Humane Society of the United States joined a fourth lawsuit with the Fund for Animals.
A fifth lawsuit was brought forward by the interests of a number of tribal groups, led by the Crow Indian Tribe and including their historic rivals, the Lakota (Sioux), as well as the Piikani (Blackfeet), Hopi, Ponca and Northern Arapaho nations. The lawsuit follows a 2016 treaty between indigenous nations in North America reaffirming the cultural and spiritual importance of the grizzly bear and a commitment to protect and restore them. In Congress, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced legislation titled the "Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act," which recognizes the religious significance of the great bear, and would provide new legal protections.
This historic assemblage of indigenous and conservation lawsuits to protect the grizzly is indicative of two factors: First, the legal problems of the grizzly delisting are obvious (all five lawsuits challenge the same violations of the ESA, with the addition of religious rights claims brought by the tribes). Second, the removal of protections for grizzly bears is ecologically irresponsible.
State fish and game agencies see an opportunity for a financial windfall selling grizzly hunting permits to a small minority of hunters who want the opportunity to shoot grizzly bears. The ranching industry, meanwhile, seems bent on eliminating grizzly bears entirely, even on public wildlands. Neither group has the grizzlies’ interests at heart.
The original grizzly recovery plan required the reestablishment of grizzly bears in the mountainous backcountry of the Selway-Bitterroot to link the Yellowstone bears with the core population of the northern Continental Divide. That population has yet to be established, and a recent scientific study projects that connecting northern populations of grizzlies with those in Yellowstone remains years in the future.
Without connectivity to other bear populations, and with natural food sources (like cutthroat trout runs and whitebark pine nuts) increasingly depleted, the survival of the Yellowstone grizzlies remains in doubt.
The grizzly still needs protection from the relatively small but powerful interest groups who want to see them gone. We and our allies are working toward the day when the cooler heads of our judicial system prevail, restoring that protection.
Erik Molvar is executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife across the West. He also is a wildlife biologist published in predator-prey dynamics, and has written 17 guidebooks to national parks and other public lands across the West and in Alaska. An alumnus of the University of Montana, he nonetheless works to advance the conservation of both bobcats and grizzlies.