Biologists: Grizzly numbers hold steady around Yellowstone

In this Sept. 25, 2013, file photo, a grizzly bear cub forages for food a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner. While Idaho and Wyoming pursue plans to allow grizzly bear hunting outside Yellowstone National Park, Montana has decided against a hunt.

Amid the six lawsuits swirling around the status of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, several sideline players highlight some odd angles in play.

On Tuesday, Federal District Court Judge Dana Christensen told all parties he wanted the whole delisting debate wrapped up in one comprehensive review before September, when Wyoming’s grizzly hunting season is set to start. That means getting a lot of cats herded in the same direction, on both sides of the case.

Below the title “Crow Indian Tribe et. al. vs United States of America et. al.” at least a dozen groups and agencies say they have a stake in how 700 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park get managed.

Last July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled those bears had recovered from their federal threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. At least 25 parties sued. The federal government defends its decision, backed up by state wildlife departments from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and at least four hunting-related organizations.

On the plaintiffs’ side, the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian tribes stand alongside the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Western Watersheds Project, Native Ecosystems Council, Wild Earth Guardians, Humane Society of the United States and Fund For Animals. There are also representatives from the Crow Creek Sioux and Standing Rock Sioux tribes, Piikani Nation, Crazy Dog Society, Hopi Nation Bear Clan, Northern Arapaho Elders Society and nine individuals.

And one more person joined the case after trying to fight for grizzlies from Illinois: retired Chicago attorney Robert Aland. In an interview with the Missoulian, Aland said he mounted his own challenge to during the 2007 Bush Administration’s attempt to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies. When that decision was overturned by the 9th U.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, his case was ruled moot. The new delisting brought him back to the courtroom.

“I’m committed to do what I can to help the bears survive and prevent the renewed slaughter in a legal way to the maximum of my abilities,” said Aland, who also lives part of the year outside Grand Teton National Park. Among his claims is the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife failed to meet its one-year deadline between announcing a grizzly delisting rule was coming and its actual publication some 15 months later.

Among the attorneys who didn’t speak on Tuesday were representatives for the Safari Club International, National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation. They all received intervenor status last week.

Safari Club claimed 50,000 members, while the NRA claimed 5 million members. The two organizations listed numerous members who wanted to hunt grizzlies or lead grizzly hunts for clients, or who had hunted other big game that might benefit from states having greater control of grizzly numbers.

In the brief, Montana outfitter and SCI member Edwin Johnson said he “also worries that the bears are too aggressive now, and believes a fear of humans resulting from bear hunting would be beneficial for public safety.

Other members said they chose not to hunt big game in some areas because “the bears have no fear of humans because they have never been hunted,” and that if bears were more fearful “fewer bears will be killed out of self-defense or from culling of bears that have been involved in altercations with humans.”

SCI attorney Douglas Burdin said he didn’t buy the idea that grizzlies are such an iconic species they should never be hunted, especially as hunting seasons for them exist in Alaska, Canada and other countries.

“People who enjoy hunting want to have the opportunity to hunt a grizzly just like any other species,” Burdin said. “That’s the science behind well-regulated hunting. A certain amount of hunting can be tolerated. It’s a cost-effective way to manage wildlife.”

The case differs from typical lawsuits in that no one will be cross-examining witnesses in front of a jury. All the evidence before Judge Christensen comes from the administrative record of research and policy built by the government. In his directions to both sides about how the case would progress, Christensen warned he would not rule piecemeal on summary judgement motions until that record was complete. He also asked everyone to have their full briefs filed by mid-August.

“I want to get all the arguments on the table at one time,” Christensen said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

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