New ruling foreshadows major legal battle over grizzly bear conservation
A federal judge says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated environmental laws when it authorized the killing of four threatened grizzly bears in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.
The agency allowed the lethal “taking” of the grizzlies in connection with an elk hunt in the park, but U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that the biological studies used by the agency didn’t meet the standards of the Endangered Species Act. Contreras said the agency must do a better job of analyzing the cumulative impacts of its decision.
Conservation advocates who are rallying to challenge the potential delisting of grizzly bears said the case proves their point — that the USFWS isn’t looking at the big picture when it comes to grizzlies.
The federal authorization for killing four grizzly bears in Grand Teton National Park came in the wake of a Thanksgiving Day 2012 elk hunt, in which three hunters shot and killed an adult male grizzly bear. Anticipating more such conflicts as the region’s grizzlies turn to meat-based food sources such as hunter-killed or wounded elk, federal officials in September 2013 approved the killing of four more grizzly bears in connection with future elk hunts in Grand Teton through the year 2022.
The lawsuit, which was filed in April 2015, faulted the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service for ignoring a mounting level of grizzly mortality and its implications for the recovery of the Yellowstone-area population in authorizing the killing of four more grizzly bears in Grand Teton National Park.
Conservation advocates claim that the killing of four more grizzlies, combined with other “take” authorizations, could push the grizzly population below a sustainable level.
“Federal wildlife officials have been handing out exemptions allowing the killing of the Yellowstone region’s iconic grizzly bears with very little scrutiny — and with no scrutiny whatsoever of the cumulative harm caused by mounting grizzly mortalities over the past few years,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, who represented the groups in the lawsuit. “This decision should put a stop to that.”
“Unfortunately, the Fish and Wildlife Service has made it a habit of doing the same thing this court has ruled as illegal,” said Jonathan Ratner of the Western Watersheds Project. “Nearly all the grizzly bear biological opinions issued by the FWS in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem suffer from the same violation of the ESA.”
Yellowstone-area grizzly bears are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. After being listed, the species made a comeback but population growth has leveled off in recent years. Grizzlies are facing the loss of two key food sources — whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout — due to changing environmental conditions driven in part by a warming climate. That is pushing grizzlies toward a more meat-based diet, which ups the chances for conflicts with humans.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly increased authorization of grizzly bear killing in the Yellowstone region, while ignoring the big picture effects on this vulnerable population. Upping the ‘take’ without requiring stringent measures to reduce conflicts between grizzly bears and hunters in one of our nation’s most iconic national parks is particularly irresponsible for an agency charged with protection of threatened species,” said Bonnie Rice with Sierra Club’s Our Wild America in the Yellowstone region.