More than three years after first filing suit, environmental attorneys continue to make the case that wildlife throughout Grand Teton National Park are subject to National Park Service policies that prohibit hunting.
The legal battle was spurred in 2014, when the National Park Service announced it had formally changed decades-old policy and would be giving the Wyoming Game and Fish Department jurisdiction over wildlife in private and state-owned “inholdings” within the park.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and the Defenders of Wildlife all sued, filing two lawsuits that were later consolidated into one.
In 2018, plaintiffs were dealt a blow when the U.S. District Court judge for Wyoming, Scott Skavdahl, ruled in the National Park Service’s favor in a judgment that received no media attention.
The groups appealed, and on Sept. 24 Earthjustice managing attorney Tim Preso made his case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. He told justices that the chain of events that took place after legislation creating Grand Teton National Park was signed into law 69 years ago suggests that Wyoming ceded its authority over all wildlife within the park.
“Wyoming [was] suddenly seeking emergency exemptions from park wildlife protections, because hunting seasons were underway when President Truman signed the bill,” Preso told Appeals Court judges Nancy Moritz, Jerome Holmes and Carlos Lucero.
“At that time there are 18,300 acres of inholdings within the new park,” he said. “Not once did Wyoming say, ‘We have authority to authorize hunting on those inholdings.’ Instead, they said, ‘Interior, we need you to bail us out, because Wyoming can’t do anything unless you gave us a green light.’”
That history, Preso contended, was ignored when the Park Service decided to change course five years ago: “The Park Service considered none of it,” he said.
The policy change has allowed Wyoming to manage and permit hunting seasons for wildlife like bison on 950 acres of private land spread across 100 tracts within Grand Teton National Park. The state of Wyoming owns a 640-acre parcel near Kelly that has been affected by the jurisdiction swap.
Closed-door discussions about whether the states or the federal government had authority over wildlife on park inholdings had been ongoing for several years, but they were brought to light when a Moosehead Ranch employee shot and killed a wolf that had been chasing livestock. Park officials declined to prosecute or name the person, citing state statute, and they rationalized the decision by saying they didn’t have jurisdiction. Simultaneously, they announced the broader policy change.
Justice Department attorney Kevin McArdle, who represented the Park Service, focused his argument on the issue Skavdahl hung his ruling on in District Court: that Wyoming never ceded its authority in the first place.
“This case comes down to one basic and unassailable point,” McArdle told the 10th Circuit. “The only entity who can cede legislative jurisdiction over lands in Wyoming to the federal government is the Wyoming Legislature. The Legislature took no action here to cede its legislative powers over Grand Teton’s private inholdings to the federal government.
“Therefore, the federal government doesn’t have legislative authority over those areas, and the wildlife regulation doesn’t apply,” he said. “That’s the entire case. Other plaintiff arguments are immaterial.”
Wyoming intervened on the case in support of the Park Service. Grand Teton National Park is unique among national parks, where hunting is prohibited, because its founding legislation included a stipulation that allows for elk hunting. That population-reduction hunt continues to this day, but pursuing other species within Grand Teton outside the inholdings is illegal.
Judge Lucero, hearing Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General Erik Petersen’s argument, questioned why the state would sit around and do “nothing whatsoever” with its jurisdiction over wildlife on the inholdings for more than a half century.
“It does seem anomalous that the state of Wyoming would recognize the purpose of the park and cede authority over the lands of the park to the federal government,” Lucero said, “and somehow leave a little shooting gallery in the middle of it where somebody could sit around and hunt elk almost like shooting ducks.”
Petersen retorted that it’s “understandable” that it seems anomalous.
“Grand Teton is different,” Petersen said. “Does it seem anomalous that we allow elk hunting in Grand Teton Park? ... We do. It’s what Congress intended.”
The case will be decided by a written decision that Preso guessed would be out within a few months.
An audio clip of the 10th Circuit Court oral arguments is attached to the online version of this story.