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Photo: Greg Von Doersten
Photo: Greg Von Doersten

Judge Ends Grizzly Hunts with Ruling That’s Bigger Than Bears

By Todd Wilkinson   |   Sep 27, 2018 September 27, 2018

So far in this young century, few wildlife conservation issues have galvanized more Americans than whether or not Western state governments ought to allow grizzly bears to be hunted again. On Monday, September 24, 2018, U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen in Missoula, Montana, resolved the matter for the foreseeable future.

In a 48-page decision, Christensen ordered that grizzlies inhabiting the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem be restored to protected status as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Trophy hunts planned for this autumn in Wyoming (targeting 22 grizzlies) and Idaho (one bear) have been postponed indefinitely, much to the delight of millions of bear advocates and 200 indigenous communities.

“We won!” Bonnie Rice reported after the ruling. The senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, Rice previewed the legal fight over the grizzly’s protected status on The Cleanest Line in April. “We’re really glad that the court sided with science” she elaborated in a statement later. “Restoring endangered species protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears means that we have a real chance at restoring them to full recovery.”

“Today we celebrate this victory and will continue to advocate on behalf of the Yellowstone grizzly bears until the population is recovered, including within the Tribe’s ancestral homeland in Montana and other states,” Lawrence Killsback, president of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, said on Monday. “The Northern Cheyenne Nation views the grizzly bear as a relative entitled to our respect and protection from harm.”

As big a victory as it was for the bears, though, the decision could also prove huge for other species, too.

Tim Preso of Earthjustice was the lead attorney on the case (Crow Indian Tribe et al. v. United States and State of Wyoming) that was brought by a half dozen conservation organizations and tribes. He said the judge’s ruling “elevates the discussion of what true biological recovery means for a high-profile, wide-ranging, slow-to-reproduce species like the grizzly.”

While rebounding numbers of grizzlies in the 22.5-million-acre Greater Yellowstone region have been touted as a great conservation success, it remains to be seen if a resilient population can withstand major threats that will likely never abate.

“The [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service failed to make a reasoned decision … when it delisted the Greater Yellowstone grizzly,” the judge wrote. “By refusing to analyze the legal and functional impact of delisting on other continental grizzly populations, the Service entirely failed to consider an issue of extreme importance. Moreover, the Service’s analysis of the threats faced by the Greater Yellowstone grizzly segment was arbitrary and capricious.”

The judge also used more stinging words, such as “illogical” and “disingenuous” to describe the government’s action to declare bear recovery completed.

America’s leading scientists know that fragmented, geographically isolated populations of species are more vulnerable to suffering collapses than larger, interconnected “meta-populations” covering wide areas. Even though the core of Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly population has grown from an alarming low of 135 bears or fewer decades ago to more than 700 today, it remains essentially an island of bears cut off from contact and intermixing with four other equally isolated clusters of bruins.

Photo: Thomas D. Mangelsen

Photo: Thomas D. Mangelsen

Grizzlies in three of those (northern Cascades, Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirks) are eminently imperiled, and one, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem encompassing Glacier National Park along the U.S. border with Canada, has hundreds of bears, as Greater Yellowstone does, but they exist apart.

“The court’s ruling rejects the government’s notion that we should settle for an isolated subpopulation of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region and call that ‘recovery,’” Preso said. “This decision offers a second chance for us to aim for a broader vision of recovery in the form of a connected population of grizzlies stretching from the Canadian border to Yellowstone with pioneer bears dispersing to recolonize their historic habitat in the great Selway-Bitterroot wilderness country of central Idaho.”

The Selway-Bitterroot, in physical terms, represents roughly a halfway point between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Frank van Manen, leader of the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, says that bears from both ecosystems are roughly 100 miles apart from meeting, but it could take several years before contact is made, let alone viable bear populations filling the public lands between.

In his decision, Christensen alluded to the direct parallel that can be drawn with gray wolves. In the upper midwestern states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, wolves had federal protections restored because individual populations were not intertwined geographically—thus failing to meet the standard laid out in the Endangered Species Act of animals reoccupying a significant portion of former range in order for recovery to be considered complete.

Christensen’s decision reverses the removal of federal protection that happened in 2017. Yet it actually marks the second time that Greater Yellowstone grizzlies have been “relisted” after being “delisted.” In 2007, the bear population was also downgraded but concerns about the dramatic decline of a key food source—tiny nutritious seeds found in the cones of whitebark pine cones—forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct another biological assessment and put state plans for trophy hunts on hold.

Climate change, arboreal disease outbreaks, mountain beetle infestations fueled by warmer temperatures and wildfire have decimated the whitebark pine forest.

Meeting criticism from independent bear scientists, the Fish and Wildlife Service and researchers concluded the collapse of the whitebark pine forest would not jeopardize the future of bears.

Christensen didn’t specifically mention the mounting threats to grizzly persistence, but conservationists such as Bonnie Rice do. Already this year, nearly four dozen grizzlies have died, most of them in various kinds of run-ins with people, including management removals due to conflicts with domestic livestock.

Such conflicts, experts say, are only expected to rise. As bears range farther in search of alternatives to natural foods being negatively impacted by climate change, and as human development and recreation pressure continue to squeeze habitat, humans will need to work harder to keep bears alive, Rice says.

Promoting better means of coexistence between people and bears isn’t easy, however. Earlier in September, a beloved Wyoming hunting outfitter was killed by a grizzly mother and cub northeast of Jackson Hole as he was helping his out-of-state client retrieve an elk that had been felled with a bow and arrow. The bears were subsequently destroyed.

“It’s been a long battle to get the grizzlies back under the protection of the endangered species list where they should have remained in the first place,” says American wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen. As an act of protest, Mangelsen applied for a grizzly bear hunting tag in Wyoming in a lottery set up to issue licenses and, amazingly, got one. If Christensen’s decision had gone the other way and Wyoming had staged the first grizzly hunt in 44 years, he was prepared to stalk a grizzly with his Nikon, as part of a grassroots campaign called “Shoot ’Em With A Camera—Not A Gun.”

Some hunters strongly disagree with Mangelsen and condemned Christensen’s ruling. Montana-born Ryan Callaghan, who works as conservation director for hunting-gear manufacturer First Lite, has faith in the states’ ability to responsibly manage bears. He is convinced that Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly population is stable and healthy enough that hunting can be tapped as a useful management tool.

Some elected officials, meanwhile, have threatened to work around the courts. This week, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, (R-Wyoming) introduced a bill called the Grizzly Bear State Management Act that directs the Department of Interior to immediately delist grizzlies without judicial review, e.g. future lawsuits from environmentalists. (Her bill is unlikely to succeed, but if it did, it would undermine not only the Endangered Species Act, but other laws that guarantee citizen review of government actions.)

Preso expects that the states will appeal the court decision and likely be joined by hunting organizations like Safari Club International that had expressed its enthusiastic support for bringing back a trophy season. The chief game warden of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Brian Nesvik, has noted that grizzly management has cost the state more than $40 million since bears were first listed as threatened in 1975. By that figure alone, bears could be labeled a burden. But it fails to account for the huge—and growing—amount of commerce being generated through nonconsumptive nature tourism, aka wildlife watching.

Each year, more than $1 billion nature-tourism-related dollars are generated for the regional economy by people coming to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks alone. Seeing grizzlies, wolves and other wildlife are among the highest priorities for tourists.

“These bears deserve our care. The threats to their survival will never go away,” said Dr. Jane Goodall a few days ago during a visit to Jackson Hole. She is among a group of prominent people who praised Christensen’s ruling.

“Grizzlies are worth far more to us alive than dead.”

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