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Appeals Court Maintains Yellowstone Grizzly Protections

Grizzly bear.

The roughly 700 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park will remain federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Wednesday. 

Grizzly bears in the lower 48 states have been listed as “threatened” since 1975. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Yellowstone grizzlies in the summer of 2017. A federal district judge in Missoula returned protections to the bruins and put a stop to the first grizzly hunts in decades in the fall of 2018. Those hunts were scheduled in Wyoming and Idaho, but not Montana.

The FWS, along with Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and several pro-hunting organizations, appealed that district court decision.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court that delisting Yellowstone bears was “arbitrary and capricious.” The court said the agency did not rely on the best available science, and needs to have concrete, enforceable plans in place to maintain the genetic diversity and health of grizzly populations. It also affirmed the need to make sure new methods of estimating the size of the population of bears don’t falsely inflate grizzly numbers in the area.

However, the Ninth Circuit overturned one, small part of the district court’s opinion.

Grizzlies exist in a handful of other ecosystems in the northwest—notably about 1000 bears roam in and around Glacier National Park. If the FWS goes ahead with another Yellowstone-area delisting rule, those other grizzlies would remain federally protected. But the FWS maintained the district court required them to do too much analysis on what removing protections for Yellowstone bears means for grizzlies elsewhere.

The Ninth Circuit agreed. They said, while the FWS does need to conduct some review of what delisting would mean for remaining, protected bears—that review does not need to be as rigorous and lengthy as initially required.

The latest ruling marks the second time the federal government has tried—unsuccessfully—to delist Yellowstone-area bears.

In 2019, Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines called the decision to return protections to grizzlies a “major setback for Montana.”

Republican U.S. House Representative Greg Gianforte has lobbied the Department of the Interior to delist the bruins, and introduced federal legislation that would make delisting protected animals easier.

Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester delisted a subpopulation of gray wolves in a budget bill rider in 2011. It was the first time a species had been delisted Congressionally, rather than through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“When it comes to species management, we need to let science drive the decision making,” Tester said in an emailed statement when asked about the Ninth Circuit’s decision. He said he believes the state has shown the ability to manage the bears and the Yellowstone population has recovered.

A council appointed by Governor Steve Bullock is meeting later this month to finalize recommendations that will shape how the state of Montana manages grizzlies.

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