Partnership Powers a Win for Grizzlies
“Winning on our issues takes a multitude of voices…. The public’s support, is the wind in the sails of our advocacy.”
The stakes had never been so high for the Greater Yellowstone region’s imperiled grizzly bear population. The Trump administration had stripped Endangered Species Act protections from the iconic bears in 2017, and now the states of Wyoming and Idaho were gearing up to hold the first grizzly trophy hunts in more than 40 years. The only thing that stood between the bears and the hunters’ guns was a court hearing scheduled just two days before the hunts were slated to begin: A ruling in the grizzlies’ favor would stop the killing, but it would have to come quickly.
Backed by the power of our supporters and others who care passionately about the fate of these bears, Earthjustice swung into action. As the legal team, led by Managing Attorney Tim Preso, prepared to make the bears’ case in court, Communications Strategist Maggie Caldwell and her colleagues geared up to represent the bears in the court of public opinion. Yellowstone’s grizzlies are beloved around the world, and Caldwell knew the impending courtroom drama provided an important opportunity to tell the bears’ story far and wide.
“It’s my job to make sure that the stories of our clients and the stories of the species are told, and told well,” Caldwell says. “We have the facts and the science on our side, but if we’re not getting our message out, we can lose in terms of public opinion even if we win our case in court.” And public opinion is crucial to ensuring that court victories solidify into longlasting protections, Preso says. “Winning on our issues takes a multitude of voices, not just in the courtroom but also in the political process, in the media, and increasingly in social media. The public’s support is the wind in the sails of our advocacy.”
The power of this partnership between the law and the voice of the people was amply illustrated by what Preso dubs an “organic uprising” of people from Wyoming’s Jackson Hole area who care passionately about the grizzly bears. Not only did they raise funds to support Earthjustice’s legal case, they formed an organization called “Shoot ‘Em With a Camera” to actively compete for the 22 permits allotted for the Wyoming trophy hunt. They ended up winning two of the tags that were given out after thousands of applications were received.
As the day of the hearing approached, interest in the case intensified. The New York Times and Washington Post covered the story, as did media from around the world, from Europe to Asia to Latin America. The word spread quickly on social media. Adding to the tension was speculation that Judge Dana L. Christensen would rule from the bench on the day of the hearing; although that happens only rarely, Christensen had already let it be known that he wanted a resolution before the hunts began.
But when the time came, the judge announced that he wouldn’t rule that day, and gave no indication of when he would. Preso and Associate Attorney Josh Purtle would have to file a temporary restraining order asking for the hunts to be delayed. Caldwell wanted to quickly get news of the fast-breaking developments out to reporters and supporters, but no electronic devices were allowed in the courtroom, so during the hearing she frantically wrote press statements and tweets by hand, then sat on the courthouse stairs during breaks and typed them into her phone. After the hearing, Preso and Purtle hurried off to a local law office to finalize and file the restraining order they had prepared in anticipation of just such an event.
Throughout the day, Earthjustice’s senior multimedia producer, Chris Jordan-Bloch, shot interviews and videos of the attorneys and the crowd outside the courtroom and sent them to his colleague, Martin do Nascimento, to edit and share with Earthjustice supporters online.
“Maggie had a great plan in place for the day of the hearing, and it all came together for some very powerful real-time communications,” Preso says. “And our media team brought everything to life with visuals in a way that we don’t often have at our disposal.”
With the motion for a restraining order filed, the team headed back to Earthjustice’s Bozeman office. On the way, they received word that the judge had granted the motion to delay the hunts. The team felt an overwhelming sense of relief; the bears would be spared, at least temporarily. Then, on Sept. 24, Judge Christensen issued his final ruling that the Trump administration’s decision to strip Endangered Species Act protections from the grizzlies was illegal. The decision reinstated the protections, putting an end to the planned trophy hunts — a momentous win for the bears.
For the present, the grizzlies of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are slumbering safely in their winter dens. Spring may bring new threats: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has filed an appeal in the case. Preso’s team is prepared to defend this court victory, and our supporters and partners are just as prepared to make their voices heard once again, loud and clear.
By Eileen Ecklund
Originally published in the Earthjustice Insider, Winter 2019