Conservation groups today filed a lawsuit in Idaho federal district court challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to eliminate Endangered Species Act protections for the Yellowstone area’s iconic grizzly bear population. The legal challenge asks the court to restore the threatened status of the Yellowstone grizzly population because of ongoing and threatened habitat destruction, insufficient bear numbers, and inadequate legal protections.
Grizzly bears in the lower-48 states were reduced to one percent of their historic range and one to two percent of their historic numbers due to persecution, poisoning, predator control efforts, livestock grazing, sport hunting, and habitat destruction associated with the march of human development. More than 270 scientists urged FWS not to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear population because it is too small and isolated for long-term viability. Long-term grizzly viability will require 2,000-3,000 bears in linked populations. To address this problem, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to truck bears from northwest Montana to Yellowstone to maintain genetic diversity in the population. The government’s decision to delist will subject the bears to hunting in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
“True grizzly bear recovery means reconnecting our current grizzly bear populations and not killing bears that are reclaiming public lands that could link bear populations,” said Jon Marvel of Western Watersheds Project.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service counts grizzlies throughout the Yellowstone area in assessing recovery, its delisting decision contains no habitat protections for more than 40 percent of currently occupied grizzly bear habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Under the government’s decision, nearly 2 million acres of high-quality grizzly bear habitat would be open to increased motorized access, more than 630,000 acres would be open for logging, and more than 850,000 acres would be open to oil and gas development in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Doug Honnold, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups, says that “Yellowstone’s grizzlies face a double threat: much of their current habitat is not protected and even in the heart of the ecosystem warming temperatures are decimating the bears’ most essential food.”
Yellowstone grizzlies rely on high-fat seeds of whitebark pine as a key food source in critical months before hibernation. Warming temperatures have enabled mountain pine beetles to kill high-altitude whitebark pine trees at alarming rates. When whitebark pine seed cone crops fail, Yellowstone grizzly bear mortalities skyrocket and the number of grizzly cubs the following spring plummets. Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council states that the decline of whitebark pine spells disaster for the bears that depend on them. “Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that 20,000 polar bears are threatened by global warming, but has failed to acknowledge that grizzly bear habitat is also declining due to global warming,” says Willcox.
Earthjustice and Advocates for the West represent the Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Center for Biological Diversity, Great Bear Foundation, and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
Read the complaint (PDF)