MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuses to change the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear's status from "threatened" to "endangered" though it admits it should be, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies claims in court.
The environmental group sued the Secretary of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service in Federal Court.
As many as 50,000 grizzlies once roamed the western half of the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These days, estimates put that number between 1,500 and 1,700, domestic populations hanging on in pockets scattered through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and extreme northwest Washington.
One population in danger of extinction is the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear. The 2,600-square mile ecosystem begins in northwest Montana and extends across Idaho's northern Panhandle. That population of grizzlies consists of about 42 bears, according to a U.S. Geological Survey DNA study.
In November 2013, despite the low numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a decision that characterized the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly as "warranted for, but precluded from, uplisting from 'threatened' to 'endangered' species status.'"
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies claims Fish and Wildlife has wrongfully held off uplisting and designating critical habitat for the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly for more than 20 years.
"The agency's position is that critical habitat is not legally required for grizzly bears because the grizzly bear was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975, which was before the ESA was amended in 1978 to mandate that critical habitat designations occur at the same time as listing rules," the complaint states.
The Alliance claims that Fish and Wildlife doesn't want to uplist the bear's status because that would require it to designate habitat.
"A critical habitat designation will require action agencies to ensure recovery of this population in all management actions," the complaint states. "Without critical habitat designation, action agencies only need to ensure survival."
The Alliance says the Fish and Wildlife could, and may, keep the bear's status in limbo forever: "There is a loophole in the statute for 'warranted-but-precluded' species: There is no statutory deadline for issuance of a proposed rule to list a species for which the FWS has determined listing is warranted but precluded."
The group says the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly is not the only species government agencies have refused to uplist: more than 100 species have been waiting for ESA protection for decades.
"As of 2006, at least 42 species had gone extinct during delays in the listing process," the complaint states. "Hundreds more have experienced long delays between the time they were identified as needing protection and the time they were actually protected by an ESA listing. Population declines during these delays makes recovery more difficult, more expensive and sometimes impossible."
According to the Alliance, the population of 42 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem falls well short of the 100 bears needed to recover the population.
The Alliance claims Fish and Wildlife's refusal to uplist bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, which is National Forest land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, is linked to commercial logging operations, road construction and costs associated with species recovery efforts.
"The 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan identifies both 'roading' and 'logging' as 'competitive use[s] of habitat' for grizzly bears," according to the complaint.
The Alliance seeks declaratory judgment that the agency's failure to act is "contrary to law," remand of its decision not to uplist the grizzly, and Fish and Wildlife ordered to set a "reasonable" date for issuing a proposed uplisting and a critical habitat rule.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies is represented by Rebecca Smith with the Public Interest Defense Center, and Timothy Bechtold, both of Missoula.
The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) can weigh more than 1,000 lbs. and grow to more than 9 feet long with a shoulder height of nearly 5 feet. Baby bears weigh about 1 lb. The grizzly may be distinguished from a black or brown bear by its size, and by a hump on its back, though the hump may be difficult to discern as one runs away.
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