(CN) — Environmentalists sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday in a bid to stop a plan that allows for 72 grizzly bears to be killed in a national forest near Yellowstone National Park.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club teamed up to file the suit in federal court in the District of Columbia, saying the establishment of a livestock grazing area in the Bridger-Teton National Forest violates the Endangered Species Act.
“It’s outrageous that the feds are caving to the livestock industry by allowing dozens of grizzly bears to be killed in their crucial habitats on public lands,” said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Yellowstone’s grizzly bears are a national treasure that should be protected, not slaughtered.”
While Fish and Wildlife’s plan does not pertain to the slaughter of bears inside Yellowstone, the grazing area in question is within 100 miles of both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and Yellowstone grizzlies could easily wander into an area where bear-livestock conflicts could transpire.
In fact, the Upper Green River Area Rangeland Project, the name for the approximately 170,000 acres where local ranchers are allowed to graze cattle on federal lands, has seen the most grizzly bear deaths of anywhere in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: 37 since 1999.
The grazing program area was approved by the U.S. Forest Service in 2019 and encompasses the headwaters of the Green and Gros Ventre rivers. One grazing allotment in the project lies about 30 miles away from Grand Teton National Park.
The area is a natural habitat for grizzly bears and other threatened species, according to the lawsuit.
As part of the approval process, the U.S. Forest Service was required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about whether allowing grazing in the area would adversely affect the grizzly bear population.
Fish and Wildlife concluded more grizzly bears would be killed as a result of the project but that conservation measures would be enough to keep deaths to a manageable level. It further concluded the deaths of 72 grizzly bears over the 10-year period of the grazing program would not harm the overall population of the bears in the greater Yellowstone area.
The area around Yellowstone straddling the border of Montana and Wyoming boasts one of the largest populations of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, with an estimated 600 bears roaming the vast territory.
All told, there are only about 1,500 grizzlies in the lower 48 states, most of which are in Montana. Canada and Alaska continue to boast large populations of the mammal with approximately 50,000 members of the species spread across the northern range of North America.
The grizzly bear has been extirpated from many parts of its range, including California, where the animal remains the most prominent emblem on the state flag but hasn’t occurred naturally there since the last one was killed outside of Fresno in 1922.
Conflicts with livestock was the largest reason the bear was driven out of many areas in the lower 48.
Bonnie Rice, with the Sierra Club, said the federal agencies should require more of livestock managers to reduce bear-livestock conflict. For instance, ranchers are not required to haul off cattle that die of causes other than predation, meaning they are left to rot and can often attract bears who may be wandering in the area.
“There are proven, effective ways to prevent conflicts between bears and livestock to keep both safe,” Rice said. “Allowing another 72 grizzlies to be killed without first requiring conflict prevention practices by livestock producers is unconscionable.”
Other conservation measures Rice would like to see implemented include using range riders, guard dogs, close herding of cattle and other methods of reducing conflicts between bears and livestock.
When Rob Hoelscher, district ranger for the Bridger Teton National Forest, approved the grazing program he said livestock is an appropriate use of federal lands and said the Forest Service would uphold measures to ensure ecological integrity.
“Grazing is an appropriate use of the national forest and is important to the community economically and socially,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife did not return a request for comment by press time.