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Hunting Grizzlies

A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Grizzly bear legal watchers must wait another two months to learn how the federal government plans to appeal a court ruling blocking its plan to remove bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from Endangered Species Act protection.

A mediator for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pushed back the federal briefing to May 24, shortly before the original March 15 deadline arrived. U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen rejected the government’s arguments for delisting the Yellowstone bears on Sept. 24.

The court loss not only returned the Yellowstone grizzlies to federal Endangered Species Act protection, it derailed plans to delist an even larger population of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

About 750 grizzlies inhabit the edges of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming surrounding Yellowstone National Park. An estimated 1,000 grizzlies live in the NCDE, which extends through Montana’s Rocky Mountains from Interstate 90 to Glacier National Park and the Canadian border.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been working since 1975 to recover grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states after a century of trapping, poisoning and hunting reduced their numbers from an estimated 50,000 to just a few hundred.

The recovery strategy relied on protecting and improving habitat conditions in six ecosystems where remnant bear populations were holding on. In addition to the two big ecosystems, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates about 50 to 75 grizzlies use the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in northwest Montana and the Selkirk Ecosystem in northern Idaho respectively, while no resident grizzlies are in the Northern Cascades Ecosystem in Washington or the Bitterroot Ecosystem on the Montana-Idaho border.

Part of Christensen’s decision criticized wildlife service's inadequate review of how removing federal protection from grizzlies in one recovery area might affect populations in other areas. One of the recovery criteria calls for grizzlies to travel and interbreed across the recovery areas to avoid genetic isolation. In his ruling, Christensen called the service’s analysis “simplistic at best and disingenuous at worst.”

The judge also faulted the wildlife service for apparently bowing to the wishes of the three state wildlife agencies to use a more lenient method of counting grizzly populations than the current federal system, without presenting any scientific evidence for the change. All three states intend to use trophy hunting as a grizzly population management method, and their proposed census methods would potentially undercount bears in hunting areas outside Yellowstone National Park.

That’s led to speculation that the federal government might try to write an entirely new delisting rule for the Yellowstone and Continental Divide grizzlies. Both writing a new rule and challenging the district court decision are expected to take about two years.

All three states and several interveners such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Rifle Association and Safari Club International have announced intentions to appeal Christensen’s decision. However, they must wait for the federal government’s lead in the process.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.