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Judge Blocks Hunt, Delays Ruling On Yellowstone Grizzly Delisting

A grizzly bear sow and cub in Yellowstone National Park.
Jim Peaco
National Park Service
File photo: A grizzly bear sow and cub in Yellowstone National Park.

 Updated 7:00 p.m. 08/30/18

Grizzly bear hunts in Wyoming and Idaho scheduled to begin Saturday were temporarily halted by a federal judge in Missoula Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen issued a temporary restraining order on the hunt after refraining to rule from the bench yesterday on removing Yellowstone area grizzly bears from the endangered species list, as some were expecting.

The hearing in U.S. district court came just two days before Wyoming was set to allow its first grizzly bear hunt in 44 years, it would allow up to 22 bears to be taken. Idaho was also set to open a hunting season for one grizzly, also on September 1st. Montana has declined to hold a grizzly hunt this year.

The restraining order lasts two weeks, which means the earliest possible start to the grizzly hunt will be Thursday, September 13th.

Yesterday’s hearing was for a lawsuit filed by a big coalition of environmental groups and Native American Tribes which sued to reverse the delisting of Yellowstone area grizzlies, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did last year People on all sides of the issue had been anxiously awaiting the hearing,

MTPR’s Nick Mott was in the courtroom and joins us today.


NICK MOTT: Hey Eric.

EW: So what happened?

NM: In a nutshell, there’s not gonna be a hunt on Saturday, but also - no decision been made about delisting overall. After the hearing, plaintiffs filed for a temporary restraining order, and the judge granted it. The order lasts 14 days, and during that time plaintiffs will also be pushing for what’s called a preliminary injunction - a more permanent version of a restraining order. They say the hunts could cause lasting damage to the bear population.

EW: Prior to the order temporarily stopping the hunts that was issued late yesterday, What happened in the courtroom as the two sides argued the bigger delisting issue itself?

NM: There was definitely excitement in the courtroom, but the judge started things off saying he wouldn’t be ruling from the bench. He said he knew he was disappointing a lot of people here today, but to make that decision right there and then would mean he’d already made up his mind. And he wanted to genuinely hear out both sides of the issue. So with the restraining order, the judge has lots more time to really grind out all the details and nuances in the decision.

EW: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first tried to delist Yellowstone Grizzlies back in 2007, and at the time bear advocates sued to stop that and they won. They argued that the feds failed to take climate change into account - specifically that climate change was wiping out Whitebark pine, which is an important food source for grizzlies.

This time around, the U.S. fish and Wildlife service said they’ve gone back and they’ve analyzed the impact of declining whitebark pine, and it’s not significant enough to seriously impact Yellowstone grizzly populations, right?

NM: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Government biologists say grizzlies are generalists. So they’ll eat just about anything. There are about 200 things in their ecosystem that they can consume, and we’ve their population grow in both number and expand in range, even as the whitebark pine has been on the decline.

EW: How do the parties that brought the lawsuit against delisting respond to that?

NM: Andrea Santarsierse, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said there’s an underside to all this.

"They’ve found other food sources. The problem is, they’ve shifted to more of a meat-based diet and as a result, we’re seeing mortality rates spike.

NM: She’s basically saying as bears are looking away from whitebark pine for food, they’re looking towards farms and ranches. And they’re getting themselves into trouble especially from eating livestock. There was a huge boom in bear mortality from these kinds of conflicts with humans in 2015 and 2016, and in those years the bear population has pretty much stayed the same.

EW: The Fish and Wildlife Service’s argument for delisting is basically that the Endangered Species Act has worked, that the Yellowstone grizzly population has recovered from the low numbers when it was listed in 1975, right?

NM: Right. They say there are now more than 700 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, and that the population is now healthy enough that the federal government doesn’t have to manage them anymore, that, like almost any other wildlife, they should be managed by states.

Here’s Bill Schenk, attorney for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who was at the hearing today.

"We have black bears, we have mountain lions, we have wolves. All predator species. And the state does a real good job of managing those, I think. From the state’s perspective we simply wanna see the grizzly bear managed like any other."

EW: The sides for and against delisting have been making those arguments known since the six different lawsuits against delisting were filed back in July, and people have been eagerly awaiting this hearing and a decision - that didn’t happen, but in court we did hear from Judge Dana Christensen who will make the decision  - what kinds of questions was he asking, or what did he say.

NM: The judge asked everybody some really tough questions. He made it clear he really knew his stuff. He seemed to know everything in the briefs and all the legal decisions leading up to this by heart. But he really seemed to crack down on the Fish and Wildlife Service for delisting just this one population of grizzlies. He wanted to know why they’d decided to delist just one population, what sort of analysis went into that decision, and how it could affect other populations of bears - especially grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, here in Montana.

EW: So, no decision today. Did Judge Christensen give any indication of when he might issue one?

NM: No, but he did say he understood how time sensitive this issue was. He made it sound like he’d try to get his decision out as quickly as possible, but after giving everything the genuine thought and thoroughness it deserves.

EW: Whatever the ruling, I think it’s very likely that that the side he rules against will appeal that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals.

*Correction: Montana's last grizzly bear hunt was in 1991. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains haven't been hunted in 40 years.

Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer based in Livingston, Montana.
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