Conservationists Signal Impending Legal Challenge Over Removal of Federal Safeguards
By Matthew Bishop and Kelly Nokes, Western Environmental Law Center
On June 30, 2017, WildEarth Guardians notified the US Fish and Wildlife Service it will sue the agency over its flawed decision to strip grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Endangered Species Act protections. The Service’s decision prematurely removes vital federal safeguards from one of the nation’s most cherished species, undermining grizzly recovery in the contiguous United States and handing over the bears’ fate to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho—each of which plans to permit grizzly trophy hunting.
“The Service is putting politics ahead of science and abdicating its fundamental duty to ensure grizzly bears are restored across their native habitats in the American West,” said Kelly Nokes, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Truly recovering grizzly bears requires more than making Yellowstone National Park into a proverbial zoo: bears need protections across their range.
Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population remains threatened by dwindling food sources, habitat loss, poaching and the worsening impacts of climate change. The isolated nature of Yellowstone’s grizzly population is also a significant concern. Currently, grizzlies in the Yellowstone region have yet to connect to populations to the north and west. This genetically crippling lack of connectivity will only be intensified once state hunting regimes — which are permitted by today’s final rule — commence. Removing protections from Yellowstone’s bears will all but guarantee that the population will not naturally reconnect with other isolated populations, fundamentally undermining recovery of the species as a whole.
“It’s too early to remove protections for the isolated grizzlies of Yellowstone,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing Guardians. “We’re seeing more grizzlies move out from Yellowstone but the best science suggests this is likely due to hunger, not overcrowding. The bears are likely looking for new food sources, following the steep decline in white bark pine seeds and cutthroat trout.
Hunted, trapped, and poisoned to near extinction, grizzly bear populations in the contiguous US declined drastically from nearly 50,000 bears to only a few hundred by the 1930s. In response to the decline, the Service designated the species as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, a move that likely prevented their extinction. Roughly 960 bears reside in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, with the core of the population in Glacier National Park. Only about 50 bears survive in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yak Ecosystems, only 20 grizzlies call the North Cascades home, and zero grizzlies remain in the Bitterroots. Grizzly bears have yet to return to nearly 97 percent of their historic range.
At last count, roughly 690 grizzly bears resided in the Greater Yellowstone region in 2016, down from 2015’s count of approximately 717 bears. The last two years had near record-breaking grizzly mortality, with at least 127 bears killed since 2015 (including eight documented deaths thus far in 2017, 58 dead bears in 2016, and 61 dead grizzlies in 2015)
This notice started a 60-day clock required by the Endangered Species Act during which the Service may decide to address the organization’s concerns. If the agency fails to act within that window, WildEarth Guardians will file suit in federal court. WildEarth Guardians is represented by Matthew Bishop and John Mellgren of the Western Environmental Law Center and Kelly Nokes of WildEarth Guardians
The Western Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit public interest law firm that works to protect and restore western wildlands and advocates for a healthy environment on behalf of communities throughout the West. See more at Western Environmental Law Center.