After just two years and a month of being considered “recovered,” grizzly bears are again “threatened.”
On Tuesday, July 30, grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) were relisted under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The relisting came not as a result of a new threat, but because of a court ruling on a legal technicality.
“Upon reviewing the best available scientific and commercial data, the Service found that grizzly bears in the GYE had experienced robust population growth; state and federal agencies were cooperating to manage bear mortality and habitat; and appropriate regulatory mechanisms were put in place to ensure recovery,” wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in the announcement of the change, recapping the events leading up to the court order.
“On June 30, 2017, the Service announced the establishment of a distinct population segment of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears, determined that those bears no longer met the definition of threatened, and removed that distinct population segment from the List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife. Grizzly bears found in the five other ecosystems remained protected.”
A flurry of lawsuits followed, variously alleging the USFWS had violated its own rules in delisting the GYE grizzly bears. The suits were combined, and a temporary restraining order was issued on planned grizzly hunts in Wyoming and Idaho. On Sept. 24, 2018, Montana District Court Judge Dana Christensen sided with plaintiffs, ruling that the USFWS had violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).
The 2018 court ruling lists two areas where the USFWS violated APA: delisting the GYE grizzly bear without considering that decisions impact on other grizzly populations; and by misapplying its threat analysis in its delisting decision.
On this latter point, the ruling argued the USFWS “illegally negotiated away its obligation to apply the best available science” in population estimates. It also asserted the agency’s delisting arguments were illogically based on a pair of studies. According to the court, the studies found “the long-term health of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly depends on the introduction of new genetic material,” yet the agency used them to support the position that GYE grizzlies were genetically self-sufficient.
According to the USFWS announcement, the court order did not only relist GYE grizzlies.
“Because the court vacated the entire 2017 delisting rule, all grizzly bears in the lower 48 states are again listed as threatened,” it wrote in the Federal Register posting of the change.
“The grizzly is fully recovered in Wyoming. End of story,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, in his official response to the relisting.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service first moved to delist the bear almost 15 years ago. The last three administrations made the determination that the grizzly bear was recovered. Wyoming has a proven track record of strong, science-based management of the grizzly bear. Protections under the Endangered Species Act are unnecessary and not supported by the facts.”
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), voiced similar displeasure with the relisting.
“It is extremely disappointing that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region will be added back to the endangered species list due to a frivolous lawsuit and a flawed court decision,” he said in his response.
“Biologists agree that the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears has recovered and might have even reached the capacity in many areas of the ecosystem. This information isn’t new—I’ve been working on this issue for more than 20 years, and we knew back then that grizzly bears had recovered.
Continental grizzly populations exist in the Northern Cascades (Washington), the Bitterroot (Idaho), the Northern Continental Divide (Montana), Selkirk (Washington, Idaho, and Canada), and Cabinet-Yaak (Montana) ecosystems in addition to the GYE. According to USFWS information, grizzly bears are spreading out of the GYE and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems.
Just five days before the grizzly relisting, the USFWS and the National Parks Service announced they were extending the comment period on a draft restoration plan for grizzly bears in the Northern Cascades. The draft plan was issued in January 2017 and the original comment period ran until the end of April 2017.
Though the draft restoration plan didn’t change, the renewed comment period will run through Oct. 24. The agencies also noted that all comments received during the previous 2017 comment period will also be considered. The draft plan can be read online at parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis.
Comments can be submitted online (preferred) or via mail. Online comments can be submitted at parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?documentID=77025.
Mailed comments can be addressed to: Superintendent’s Office, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro Woolley, WA 98284. — WLJ