A federal judge ruled this week that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had failed to protect the critically endangered Selkirk grizzly bear population in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington. Once part of a contiguous population of more than 50,000 bears ranging from Mexico to Canada, the 26-36 bear Selkirk population now teeters on the brink of extinction.
Federal district court Judge Paul Friedman ruled for the second time in four years that FWS failed to take the necessary steps to provide protection for the Selkirk grizzly population. The case started in 1992, when 16 conservation groups sought increased protections for the Selkirk grizzly bears. The groups sought "endangered" status for the bears under the Endangered Species Act, which is more comprehensive than its current "threatened" status.
Judge Friedman reconfirmed his 1995 ruling to find the wildlife service continues to be arbitrary and capricious in its refusal to reclassify the Selkirk population.
"While the agency remains the expert in this field, it appears on the basis of the scientific evidence presented that the Selkirk population is simply too small to justify the agency's decision not to reclassify it as endangered. . . . a population of 26 to 36 grizzly bears seems to be endangered almost by definition," Friedman wrote in his conclusion.
"Now, after forcing Judge Friedman to rule a second time on the same issues for their failure to protect Selkirk grizzly bears, it's time for Fish and Wildlife Service to start protecting bears," said Doug Honnold of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the lead attorney on the case.
Judge Friedman again rejected the wildlife service's continued claims that reclassification is not required. The service defended its position with four claims: 1) the Selkirk population can withstand current rates of human-caused mortality; 2) current legal protections are adequate; 3) the small size of the population does not mean that it is endangered; and 4) Canadian habitat in adjacent British Columbia will sustain the Selkirk population. Judge Friedman ruled that the wildlife service did not provide evidence to establish any of these claims, and his 1995 ruling required it to do so.
"After seven years of legal wrangling, our hope is the wildlife agency will drop this court fight and establish real habitat security for the bears," said Jerry Pavia, president of the Idaho Conservation League, and resident of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, the closest city to the Selkirk grizzly bears.
"The Selkirk bears are important for our mountain ecosystem and for survival of this great animal of the West," said Guy Bailey, executive director of the Selkirk-Priest Basin Association.
The ruling does not set specific management actions but requires further justification from the wildlife service if it continues to resist reclassification of the bears as endangered. With a change to endangered status, critical habitat must be defined and protected, and human intrusion regulated to protect the bears.
"Again and again, we have to take our own government agencies to court to enforce our wildlife protection laws and to free the agencies from political manipulation," said Mark Solomon, executive director of the Lands Council, formerly Inland Empire Public Lands Council. "Let's now do what's right for the bears and the wild mountains they live in," he added.
"The uplisting of the Selkirk grizzly bears to endangered is the sad outcome of Fish and Wildlife Service allowing the Forest Service to continue to degrade habitat and failing to provide security for the bears," said Liz Sedler of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit on behalf of D.C. "Jasper" Carlton, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, David Hunt, Selkirk-Priest Basin Association, Idaho Conservation League, Inland Empire Public Lands Council, Greater Ecosystem Alliance, Jari Preston, Montana Ecosystems Defense Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, American Wildlands, Predator Project, Great Bear Foundation, National Audubon Society, Montana Wilderness Association, Cabinet Resource Group, Native Ecosystems Council, and Sierra Club.
Copies of the decision are available in PDF format here. PDF file provided courtesy of Endangered Species and Wetlands Report (www.eswr.com).
Doug Honnold, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (406) 586-9699
John McCarthy, Idaho Conservation League, (208) 882-1010
Guy Bailey, Selkirk-Priest Basin Association, (208) 448-2971
Mark Solomon, The Lands Council, (208) 882-4087
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