DENVER (CN) – Environmentalists on Tuesday urged the 10th Circuit to require the National Park Service to protect wildlife from hunters on private land within Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.
The Defenders of Wildlife and the National Parks Conservation Association challenge the agency’s 2014 finding that it is powerless to enforce wildlife protection rules on 1,600 acres of state and privately owned inholdings located within the 310,000-acre Grand Teton National Park. Millions of people visit the crown jewel of America’s national park system annually, which is home to bison, elk, antelope, grizzlies and gray wolves.
“The National Park Service arbitrarily opened the door to authorizing hunting in one of our crown jewel national parks,” argued Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso before the court.
The issue arose after a private landowner killed a gray wolf and the National Park Service found it had no jurisdiction to act on the property. The environmentalists sued over the decision in 2016, and a federal judge found in favor of the agency in July 2018.
What environmentalists believe was baked into the creation of the National Park Service in 1950 – the idea that wildlife taking is prohibited on all park land – the agency now calls an erroneous assumption.
“The only entity that can cede Wyoming land to the National Park Service is the state of Wyoming,” Justice Department attorney Kevin McArdle told the 10th Circuit panel. “Yes, the Park Service assumed for many years, but an assumption without action is not a practice, and there is no evidence the National Park Service ever penalized someone on private inholdings or raised the legislative issue.”
Aside from the state and the agency striking a deal to manage the elk population together – via hunting – the parties rarely addressed the private inholdings over the decades.
No owners of private inholdings are parties in the case, but Wyoming entered as an intervening defendant and explained why the issue is only now being addressed.
“I’m sure you know how few people live up in Wyoming, so this issue didn’t come up,” said Erik Petersen, a senior assistant attorney general in Wyoming.
U.S. Circuit Judge Nancy Moritz, a Barack Obama appointee, had another idea.
“I’m sure the good people of Wyoming thought they would be prosecuted if they hunted in the park,” Moritz countered dryly.
“It seems anomalous that the state of Wyoming would leave a circle in the middle of the park, a shooting gallery,” noted U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero, appointed by Bill Clinton.
“Grand Teton is different,” Petersen insisted. “It doesn’t seem anomalous that we hunt elk in the park and that we deputize private citizens to hunt elk, it’s what Congress intended.”
Lucero extended oral argument times for all parties because he had questions, pressing both sides on the law enforcement jurisdiction.
“If a crime happens today, in these historically private inholdings, does Wyoming have exclusive jurisdiction?” Lucero asked.
Peterson said the concurrent jurisdiction is largely determined by the crime, while McArdle said the state had jurisdiction on the private land.
But this issue may be bigger than any one ranch. In his brief, Preso warned, “Under Wyoming’s management, numerous wildlife species that live in Grand Teton – including coyotes, foxes, and certain birds – may be killed at any time, in unlimited numbers, by any lawful means when they cross onto the inholdings.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Jerome Holmes, appointed by George W. Bush, rounded out the panel, which did not indicate when it would rule.