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Elk Hunts in Teton National Park Continue

(CN) - An annual elk hunt in Grand Teton National Park can continue, but a broader look at related grizzly bear mortality must be taken, a federal judge ruled.

Conservationists brought two related lawsuits in Washington, saying the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke federal law by issuing a 2007 joint management plan that approved continuation of the Elk Reduction Program in Grand Teton National Park.

The lawsuits also involve a 2013 addendum to the plan that increased the anticipated "incidental taking" of grizzly bears from one to five during the 15-year implementation period.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras, in Washington, D.C., partially granted the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment on Tuesday, shooting down most of the plaintiffs' claims.

The Sierra Club and Western Watersheds sued the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2015, calling the elk reduction program bogus and raising the incidental take to five grizzly bears arbitrary.

"Each year, in an effort to address regional elk overpopulation, the park hosts an 'Elk Reduction Program' that allows hunters to kill elk within park boundaries," according to the 20-page complaint. "The (program) principally results from a misguided program of winter elk feeding by FWS on the nearby Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge.

"That feeding program artificially inflates the local elk population such that the extraordinary step of hunting wildlife within a national park has been deemed necessary to control the population."

Hunting has historically been prohibited in national parks, except for the Elk Reduction Program in Grand Teton, a provision set by Congress when it expanded the park in 1950.

The Jackson elk herd is the largest in North America. Many elk migrate between the park and the Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge at its southeast boundary.

Elk are abundant and the agencies say management is critical to reach sustainable elk herd population, sex and age goals.

Conservationists dispute that. They say the elk herds would thin themselves out through natural processes, including predation, if the agencies left them to their own devices and quit feeding them.

The plaintiffs say hunters present a problem for grizzly bears, which are more prevalent in the area because of the greater number of elk and the attraction to "gut piles" left by hunters after a kill, which results in increased hunter-bear conflicts.

A man and his two sons were charged by a grizzly bear in a surprise encounter while hunting inside the park in November 2012. The bear was shot and killed.

Before that incident, in 2007, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service issued the plan to manage bison and elk, calling for an annual harvest of 300 to 600 elk.

The plan was expected to have an effect on grizzly bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service consulted on the matter and issued a biological opinion that concluded that the plan would "not jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear," and anticipated that one bear would be incidentally "taken" during the 15-year implementation of the plan.

The agencies consulted again after the 2012 grizzly bear killing and increased the incidental take to five bears, which the conservationists describe as "arbitrary."

Plaintiffs in the two separate lawsuits challenge several aspects of the continued approvals of the elk hunt and the agencies' 2013 addendum to the biological opinion concerning the grizzly bear.

Wildlife photographers Timothy Mayo and Kent Nelson sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Wyoming in October 2014, saying the decision to approve the elk hunt violated the National Environmental Policy Act because the National Park Service failed to prepare an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement for each year of the program.

In his Tuesday ruling, Judge Contreras found that a 600-page study demonstrates that the Fish and Wildlife Service "sufficiently considered and took a 'hard look' at the possible environmental impact of continuing to allow elk hunting in the park."

"In sum, the court finds that the EIS prepared as part of the 2007 Management Plan sufficiently considered the environmental impacts of continuing the elk reduction program in the park without necessitating the preparation of a new EA or EIS each year when a particular hunt is approved."

But Contreras also found that though the Forest Service used a valid methodology to calculate take numbers for grizzly bears in its 2013 addendum, it failed to consider other important factors.

"Sierra Club argues that the FWS's addendum is arbitrary and capricious because the agency failed to consider and evaluate the impact of the other incidental takes of the grizzly bear that had been authorized in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem since 2007 when making its 'no jeopardy' finding," Contreras wrote in the 87-page ruling. "On this score, the court agrees that that agency has failed to demonstrate that it even considered this important problem."

Contreras granted the plaintiffs summary judgment, but without vacating the addendum, which he remanded.

"As courts in this district have previously explained, an action's impact 'cannot be determined or analyzed in a vacuum, but must necessarily be addressed in the context of other incidental take authorized by FWS," Contreras wrote.

Western Watersheds executive director Travis Bruner did not immediately return a phone call Thursday.

Sierra Club Idaho chapter director Zack Waterman was not available for comment after hours.

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