MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) — Restoring protections to grizzly bears near Yellowstone National Park, a federal judge on Monday rescinded a 2017 rule by the Trump administration that allowed hunting of the endangered species outside of the park.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the change in June 2017, effectively separating grizzly bears in the the Yellowstone ecosystem from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bear populations, saying that the bears in and around Yellowstone had been recovered and no longer warranted protections under the Endangered Species Act. The bears are listed as a threatened species in the lower 48 states.
After the rule appeared in the Federal Register, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — three states surrounding Yellowstone National Park — deemed that a grizzly bear hunting season could be opened under a discretionary mortality quota, which takes into account bears that are killed in human-related events, such as traffic accidents.
Wyoming and Idaho scheduled bear hunts for this fall, while Montana declined to pursue a hunting season on the grizzlies that come out of Yellowstone National Park. Wyoming planned to allow up to 23 bears to be killed, while Idaho allowed one permit for a male grizzly.
Lawsuits quickly followed, with nearly two dozen plaintiffs intervening in the effort to restore Endangered Species Act protections. The Crow Indian Tribe is the lead plaintiff.
Two days before the first hunting season, Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen granted an 11th hour reprieve following an Aug. 30 hearing in Missoula.
Christensen signed another injunction Sept. 13 to stop the hunts, but that was the plaintiffs’ last chance under this suit, as only two injunctions are allowed.
Late Monday afternoon, he vacated the rule change.
Grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, two years after Congress enacted the law. While 37 separate grizzly populations were identified in the contiguous United States in 1922, only six populations remained in 1975, according to Christensen’s order. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, covering portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, was home to one of the largest grizzly populations. In 1975, there were between 136 and 312 bears estimated in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
There are now about 700 bears in Yellowstone.
“Although this order may have impacts throughout grizzly country and beyond, this case is not about the ethics of hunting, and it is not about solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts as a practical or philosophical matter,” Christensen wrote in his Monday order. “These issues are not before the court. This court’s review, constrained by the Constitution and the laws enacted by Congress, is limited to answering a yes-or-no question: Did the United States Fish and Wildlife Service exceed its legal authority when it delisted the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear?”
Christensen found that it did.
The judge wrote that “delisting the Greater Yellowstone grizzly without analyzing how delisting would affect the remaining members of the Lower-48 grizzly designation, the Service failed to consider how reduced protections in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would impact the other grizzly populations.”
Focusing on two of the many challenges brought on behalf of the grizzlies, Christensen found that the delisting would have a negative effect on the remaining grizzly bear populations in the Northern Rockies ecosystem, and that the service acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in its delisting.
Among other claims, the Crow Indian Tribe had said that the delisting violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Humane Society of the United States, Wildearth Guardians, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Alliance for the Wild Rockies had each brought separate challenges.
Applauding the court’s order Monday, Bethany Cotton of WildEarth Guardians said grizzlies “would have died at the hands of trophy hunters.”
“Now, not only do the Yellowstone region’s bears have a fighting chance, so too do grizzlies across the Lower 48,” Cotton said. “We are gratified the court saw the numerous flaws in the service’s decision, and stepped in to stop a cascade of events that would have put this already struggling icon of the West closer to extinction.”
Cotton also accused the federal government under Trump and Zinke of having “illegally carved out” the Yellowstone grizzly bear population without adequately considering the impact of on other populations of grizzly bears.
“The recovery of those populations depends heavily on interpopulation connectivity and genetic exchange,” Cotton said. “Under the Trump administration’s plan, dispersing grizzlies essential to species recovery would have to pass through a killing zone outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks where Wyoming and Idaho rushed to approve trophy hunts.”
The Western Environmental Law Center had intervened in the case as well, saying . that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region remain threatened by dwindling food sources, climate change, small population size and high levels of human-caused mortality.
“Politics has no place in removing species from protective status – decisions must be driven by the best available science and here, the science says grizzly bears remain threatened in the lower 48 and in the Yellowstone region,” Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the center, said. “Today’s decision is a firm reminder to the Fish and Wildlife Service of its duty.”
The Wyoming Farm Bureau, the state of Montana, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation were among the groups that intervened in support of the defendants, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Greg Sheehan, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Christensen found that the service “illegally negotiated away its obligation to apply the best available science in order to reach an accommodation with the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana,” and that it relied on two studies to support its determination that the Greater Yellowstone grizzly can remain independent and genetically self-sufficient.
“However, the Service’s reliance is illogical, as both studies conclude that the long-term health of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly depends on the introduction of new genetic material,” the ruling states.
Christensen found that the service failed to consider the issue of genetic diversity as a key to long-term survival of grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park.
“In short, the service has failed to demonstrate that genetic diversity within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, long-recognized as a threat to the Greater Yellowstone grizzly’s continued survival, has become a non-issue,” Christensen wrote. “The service’s determination is arbitrary and capricious because it is both illogical and inconsistent with the cautious approach demanded by the ESA.”