MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) – Environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe have filed two lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s decision to remove Endangered Species Act protection for the Yellowstone grizzlies.
Earthjustice, representing the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Montana, Missoula Division, on Aug. 30, a day after The Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals suit in the same court. Both suits challenge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove the Yellowstone grizzly from Endangered Species Act protection.
When the USFWS took the Yellowstone grizzlies off the federal list of endangered species in June, Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hailed the decision as “one of America’s great conservation successes, the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners.” The USFWS noted that the Yellowstone grizzlies had rebounded from 136 bears in 1975 to an estimated 700 bears at the time of delisting.
“National Parks Conservation Association refutes the Department of the Interior’s short-sighted decision, which threatens Yellowstone grizzlies and ignores concerns, including those raised by many in the National Park Service. Despite Interior’s claim, the long-term health of Yellowstone and Grand Teton grizzlies is far from certain,” Stephanie Adams, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association said. “We must ensure Yellowstone grizzlies have necessary protections in place for the population to thrive.”
CBD senior attorney Andrea Santarsiere said the USFWS ignored the “record-high death rates of 61 bears in 2015 and 58 bears in 2016.” According to U.S. Geological Survey data, the majority of the deaths were human-caused, including road kill, poaching, misidentification by black bear hunters, and “management removal” for cattle depredations and other human interactions. Now, by delisting the Yellowstone population, these bears will also face the threat of trophy hunting in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the groups said.
“These iconic bears need to be protected, not gunned down so their heads can go on some trophy hunter’s wall,” Santarsiere said. “Facing ongoing threats and occupying less than five percent of their historic range, grizzly bears are nowhere near recovery and continue to need the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act.”
In addition to the alarming increase in human-caused grizzly deaths, the bears are also struggling with other threats that were not taken into consideration prior to delisting them, the groups claim. According to the Earthjustice suit, “the service’s decision irrationally and unlawfully ignored critical factors. First and foremost, due to climate change and the spread of disease and invasive species, grizzly bears’ traditional food resources in the Yellowstone region have declined in recent years.” Cutthroat trout, one of the bears’ diet mainstays, have declined due to invasive lake trout, Santarsiere told Courthouse News. Whitebark pines, the seeds of which are another key component of the bears’ diet, are in rapid decline due to climate change, a fungal disease and pine beetle infestations, according to the USFWS.
These declines in traditional food sources have caused the bears to shift to a more meat-based diet, including livestock and gut piles left by hunters, resulting in more bear/human conflict, “conflict that the bears often do not survive,” the Earthjustice suit stated.
The groups also point out that the USFWS “surgically” delisted the isolated Yellowstone population instead of considering them in the larger context of the western grizzlies as a whole. In its reaction statement to the service’s 2016 delisting proposal, the CBD noted that the historical population of 50,000 grizzlies from Alaska to Mexico has declined to around 1,500 bears in five isolated populations in the northern Rockies and Cascades.
“Without continued Endangered Species Act protections, the recovery of grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone is in serious jeopardy. Inadequate requirements to protect and connect Yellowstone grizzlies to other populations and hostile state management policies will mean fewer bears restricted to an even smaller area. Grizzly bears will be killed through trophy hunts on the doorstep of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks instead of inspiring millions who come to the region just for a chance to see a live grizzly bear in the wild,” Bonnie Rice, Greater Yellowstone senior representative with Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign said.
Endangered Species Act protection for predators has been a tough sell in the new administration. Conflicts with ranchers are often at the center of these issues for species like wolves and grizzlies. But Santarsiere notes that there are non-lethal ways to reduce livestock predation by bears. “For starters, livestock could be removed from public lands frequented by bears. Livestock owners could also implement non-lethal measures to reduce the likelihood of depredation, including fladry, range riders, fencing, cow/calf rotations, and other proven measures. At this point, some livestock owners do, but many still don’t,” she said. Fladry is the practice of placing a line of flapping fabric or flags on top of a fence.
“This past weekend I was traveling for work and spotted a grizzly bear foraging just outside of Yellowstone National Park boundaries. I was inspired watching this bear, but I couldn’t stop wondering if this bear will be shot next spring by trophy hunters. It was a sickening feeling,” Santarsiere said.
Courthouse News Service reached out to the USFWS for comment, but received no reply.