Court Puts Grizzly Bears Back on the Endangered Species List

A federal judge just ruled against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its “arbitrary and capricious” decision to remove the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear's protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear just earned back its designation as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

In a landmark decision overturning yet another Trump administration rollback, on September 25 United States District Judge Dana Christensen ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong in taking Yellowstone National Park area Grizzly Bears off the Endangered Species List.

In May 2018, the Wyoming Fish and Game Commission voted to allow hunters to track down and kill up to a total of 22 grizzlies just east of Yellowstone. That was supposed to start this month. It would have been the first large-scale hunt of the bears in 43 years anywhere in the lower 48 states.

Wyoming could do this legally because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), part of the Interior Department, announced in June 2017 that the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear was being removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The argument the USFWS made was that after 42 years of being in a protected class, the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear had grown substantially in population. When they went on the list in 1975 as a threatened species, there were less than 150 of them in an area encompassing in and around Yellowstone National Park, and in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. As of 2017 there were over 700.

By comparison, prior to European settlement in North America, there were an estimated 50,000 grizzlies just “in the lower 48 states alone”, as the District Judge’s ruling notes. The once successful species was destroyed when “The government implemented ‘bounty programs aimed at eradication, [and] grizzly bears were shot, poisoned and trapped wherever they were found’.”

At the time, Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, praised the conservation efforts which had allowed those numbers to grow. “This achievement stands 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 case just decided in U.S. District Court was filed by the Crow Indian Tribe, other Native American and environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, with the United States and the state of Wyoming as defendants. Although there were certainly pleas of concern for the welfare of the Grizzly Bears themselves on one hand, and for those looking forward to Grizzly Bear hunting season in the Yellowstone areas on the other, the court made it clear this was not about either of those causes.

As Judge Christensen said in the ruling, “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. Those 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 (“Service”)…exceed its legal authority when it delisted the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear?”

What the court found was first that “By 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. Thus, the Service ‘entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem’.”

The court also said that “the Service’s application of the ESA threats analysis is arbitrary and capricious for at least two reasons. First by dropping a key commitment – the commitment to ensure that any population estimator adopted in the future is calibrated to the estimator used to justify delisting – 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. Second, Service 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” [meaning that others would have to breed with it to bring in that material].

That last part further supports the need to treat the entire multi-state Grizzly Bear population as far more connected than the USFWS had considered.

Environmentalists also had pointed out that as global warming continues, the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear could easily become threatened again. As the temperature rise makes it difficult for the bears to stay sufficiently cool and perhaps even to hibernate effectively in the winters, that will certainly have an impact on the bear’s long-term health as a species. The food that the bears eat in the area will also be affected by global warming and the associated weather variations expected in the region. Both effects suggest that the USFWS had failed to properly consider whether the current 700+ grizzly population in the region would continue to grow as the march of climate change continues forward.

In commenting on the suit, Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that, “Facing ongoing threats and occupying a fraction of their historic range, grizzly bears are nowhere near recovery. These beautiful and beleaguered animals certainly shouldn’t be shot for cheap thrills or a bearskin rug.”

Chief Stanley Grier of the Pikani Nation – and also president of the Blackfoot Confederacy Chiefs – also applauded the decision. “As we have said repeatedly, the grizzly bear is fundamental to our religious and spiritual practices.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed with the ruling, saying it still believes its original findings, that with 700 Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bears alive, the population had “fully recovered”.

The ruling represents a major victory for those attempting to defend the Trump administration’s attempts to nullify the Endangered Species Act. It is also an important victory for all the species that act has protected in the past and will continue to protect in the future.