The state of Montana filed its final arguments late last week in the complex and controversial lawsuit over the fate of Yellowstone-area grizzly bears.
In the summer of 2017 the Department of the Interior removed Endangered Species Act protections for the roughly 700 bears estimated to live in the area at the time. Tribes and conservation groups promptly filed suit and a federal judge in Missoula restored protections for the bruins last fall
The federal government and states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court in San Francisco. That’s where the case sits, fueling frustrations for wildlife managers and conservationists alike over the future of the Endangered Species Act.
"The ESA isn’t supposed to be a permanent parking lot," says Bill Schenk, an attorney for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
In the brief filed Friday, Montana argued for removing ESA protections for the bear. Schenk says the state has sovereign interests in managing its own wildlife populations and in a grizzly hunt, which is currently blocked.
"Hunting being a part of — as a rule — is a part of wildlife management in Montana, as it is for elk, deer and many other species," he says.
In its initial appeal in May, the federal government conceded it got part of the delisting rule wrong. They said revisions to that rule are already under way. So the appeal is contesting smaller points related to connected bear populations and the science that used to understand them.
The state and federal governments hope a Ninth Circuit decision will guide how to effectively delist animals in the future.
"The more questions we get answered the better," Schenk says.
But Tim Preso, attorney at Earthjustice, says the lower court’s decision was correct and shows that the current recovery strategy is too weak and turns grizzly populations into little more than “museum-pieces.”
"What they oughta be doing at this point is reassessing whether this framework is the right one," Preso says.
In particular, he says grizzly populations ought to connect across the landscape before delisting, not after.
The Ninth Circuit could take another year or more to make a decision. Meanwhile, turmoil over the ESA continues to boil. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt visited Montana earlier this month to hear rancher concerns over growing grizzly populations.
Last month, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced federal legislation that would make it easier to remove protections for species as part of a broader suite of bills aimed at weakening the ESA.