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Groups Challenge Decision to Remove Protections for Yellowstone Grizzly

Delisting defies the best available science and sidesteps important legal safeguards
Grizzly bears.

Grizzly bears. Federal biologists acknowledge that population growth of the Yellowstone grizzly bear has flattened over the past decade.

Photo courtesy of Tom Murphy
June 30, 2017
Bozeman, MT —

A coalition of tribal and conservation interests today announced its intention to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the agency’s decision to remove federal protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region.

The move to delist grizzlies defies the best available science and sidesteps important legal safeguards that ensure legitimate and lasting recovery of imperiled wildlife, according to the coalition.  The coalition gave formal notice of its intent to sue to protect the iconic grizzly and will pursue legal action in federal court in 60 days if the Trump administration does not reverse course.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision comes despite a recent increase in grizzly bear deaths in the Yellowstone region in conjunction with the bears’ documented shift to a meat-focused diet following the demise of one of their key food sources—the seeds of whitebark pine—due to climate change.  Federal biologists documented a record-high 61 grizzly deaths in 2015 and 58 in 2016, with the majority of those caused by people.  Among other concerns, the final decision also fails to include measures to encourage connectivity between Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Crown of the Continent ecosystem grizzlies, leaving the Yellowstone bears in what is essentially an isolated island population.

“With grizzly deaths spiking, now is not the time to declare the great bear recovered and federal protections unnecessary,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso.  “The grizzly is a major part of what makes the region in and around Yellowstone National Park so special and unique.  We should not be taking a gamble with the grizzly’s future.”

Earthjustice is representing the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, and Sierra Club in issuing a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue to challenge the Service’s decision unless the agency takes action to protect the grizzly bear as the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) requires.  The coalition’s notice takes issue with the Service’s evaluation of the mortality consequences of the bears’ meat-based diet and faults the agency for surgically delisting the isolated Yellowstone grizzly population instead of focusing on a broader, more durable grizzly recovery in the West.

“The rule removing federal protections for America’s beloved Yellowstone grizzly bears is a political decision that is deeply flawed and will reverse so much of the progress that has been made to recover these bears,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.  “We are ready to fight to ensure these bears don’t end up dead at the hands of trophy hunters.”

“The decision to prematurely strip grizzly bears of endangered species protections is an affront to Tribal Nations and their repeated calls for consultation.  If allowed to move forward, this decision to once again put politics before science could set grizzly bear recovery back by decades.  People and bears can co-exist, but only if given the chance,” said Bonnie Rice, Greater Yellowstone representative with Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.

“The stakes are too high to rush removing important protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears,” said Stephanie Adams, Yellowstone Program Manager for National Parks Conservation Association. “The process has been fraught and common sense concerns have been ignored.  There’s no legally-binding agreement to prevent hunting within the National Park Service-managed John D. Rockefeller Parkway.  This and other issues raised by the National Park Service, the agency responsible for managing the core of the grizzly population in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, have been ignored in the final rule.”

Background:  Since 1975, Yellowstone-area grizzly bears have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Federal biologists acknowledge that population growth of the Yellowstone grizzly bear has flattened over the past decade.  Prior to and during that same period, the grizzly population has been faced with the loss of two of its most important food sources in the Yellowstone region—whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout—due to changing environmental conditions driven in part by a warming climate.  

In the wake of these changes, scientists have documented the bears’ transition to a more meat-based diet, but that diet leads to a greater potential for conflict with humans as bears seeking meat interact with hunters and ranchers.  Nevertheless, the Fish and Wildlife Service today finalized a decision to remove the Yellowstone grizzly population from the threatened species list, claiming that the bear population is recovered.

The Service previously attempted to delist the Yellowstone grizzly population in 2007, but that decision was overturned by a federal district court in Montana along with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the basis that the Service ignored the impacts of the whitebark pine loss on the grizzly population.  In rejecting the Service’s 2007 grizzly delisting decision, the 9th Circuit admonished the agency that “the Service cannot take a full-speed ahead, damn-the-torpedoes approach to delisting—especially given the ESA’s ‘policy of institutionalized caution.’”

Read the notice letter.

Contacts

Timothy Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699

Andrea Santarsiere, Center for Biological Diversity, (303) 854-7748

Virginia Cramer, Sierra Club, (804) 519-8449

Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club, (406) 640-2857

Bart Melton, National Parks Conservation Association, (406) 223-9902