With grizzly hunts looming, still no decision on federal protections

(Photo by Bob Drieslein)

MISSOULA, Mont. — Wildlife advocates pressed a Montana judge Thursday to restore federal protections for a group of about 700 grizzly bears and block hunting that’s set to begin this weekend, but the judge said he would not make an immediate ruling.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said at the opening of a packed court hearing in Missoula that he knew many people present expected him to issue a quick ruling from the bench, but told those attending “that’s not going to happen.”

He said he would issue a decision as quickly as possible but did not say whether he would rule before Saturday, when Wyoming and Idaho have bear hunts scheduled to begin.

“If I issued a decision today that would mean I have already made up my mind,” Christensen said.

Wildlife advocates who pushed to restore protections urged Christensen to act promptly, saying that many people traveled to the hearing because they care about the bears.

Attorneys for more than two dozen conservation groups, Native American tribes and individuals argued that the Yellowstone grizzlies should continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act because of conflicts with humans, changing food sources and a host of other obstacles.

Wyoming and Idaho have set Saturday as the opening day for the first grizzly hunting season in the Lower 48 states since 1974.

An appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is likely by whoever is on the losing side.

The advocacy groups claim the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last year that Yellowstone grizzlies are no longer a threatened species was based on faulty science. They also say they don’t trust the three states that have taken over bear management, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, will ensure the bears’ survival.

“The way the Endangered Species Act works is you err or the side of caution, you don’t err on the side of removing protections and hope it all works out,” said Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice representing the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

Justice Department lawyers representing the Fish and Wildlife Service reject the plaintiffs’ claims and say the Yellowstone grizzlies are one of the most-studied and best-managed bear species in the world.

Officials from the three states say they are collaborating to adjust hunting quotas each year based on total grizzly deaths and that will ensure the bear population isn’t imperiled.

“The way this grizzly bear plan was set up is to look closely at population and mortality across the three states where the grizzly bear lives,” said Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman Renny MacKay. “We do a very conservative population estimate and we do a more liberal mortality estimate.”

The population of grizzlies living in Yellowstone was classified as a threatened species in 1975, when its number had fallen to 136. The Fish and Wildlife Service initially declared a successful recovery for the Yellowstone population in 2007, but a federal judge ordered protections to remain in place while wildlife officials studied whether the decline of a major food source, whitebark pine seeds, could threaten the bears’ survival.

In 2017, the federal agency concluded that it had addressed all threats, and ruled that the grizzlies were no longer a threatened species needing restrictive federal protections.

Idaho’s hunting quota is one bear. Wyoming’s hunt is in two phases: Sept. 1 opens the season in an outlying area with a quota of 12 bears, and Sept. 15 starts the season in prime grizzly habitat near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. One female or nine males can be killed in those areas.

Wildlife officials in those states say they’re ready for opening day, which would be Wyoming’s first grizzly hunt since 1974 and Idaho’s first since 1946. Twelve hunters in Wyoming and one in Idaho have been issued licenses out of the thousands who applied.

“One thing we told them is that the hunt may not happen or it could be affected in some way,” MacKay said.

Montana officials decided not to hold a hunt this year. Bear hunting is not allowed in Yellowstone or Grand Teton.

The threatened species classification applies to all bears living in the Lower 48 states outside of the Yellowstone population. It doesn’t apply to Alaska, where bear hunts are held each spring and fall and the population numbers about 30,000.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been moving toward lifting federal protections for another group of approximately 1,000 bears living in Montana’s Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but first wants to see how Christensen decides the Yellowstone case.

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