The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday in support of a federal judge’s 2018 decision to keep Yellowstone-area grizzly bears under federal protection and off-limits to state hunts.
Ruling from Portland, Oregon, the Ninth Circuit bought plaintiffs’ arguments and U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen’s assertion that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed in planning to protect the genetic health of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bears. Appeals judges also sided with the district court’s determination on “recalibration,” i.e., switching to a different method to count grizzlies, which could have increased the number of bears that states targeted during hunts.
“We affirm the district court in all respects, with the exception of the order requiring the FWS to conduct a ‘comprehensive review’ of the remnant grizzly population,” Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder wrote in the opinion.
“Remnant” refers to bears outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Prior Endangered Species Act litigation over wolves in the Upper Midwest resulted in precedent that requires federal wildlife officials to consider how delisting a population segment affects a species in the rest of its range.
Schroeder and the appeals court justices ruled that Christensen should not have required a comprehensive review of grizzly bears across their entire range in the Lower 48 states in order to lift protections for Yellowstone bears.
An array of tribes, advocacy groups and individuals cheered the news Wednesday morning.
Plaintiffs in the litigation were numerous, including the Crow Indian Tribe, the Piikani Nation, and many other tribes and Native American individuals. Advocacy groups including the Humane Society of the United States, WildEarth Guardians, National Parks Conservation Association, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and others joined them. A seasonal Wilson resident, Bob Aland, also partook in the lawsuit.
“This is a major victory for the embattled Yellowstone grizzly bear population, and a big win for science,” Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a statement. “The court clearly recognized that the Fish and Wildlife Service was bowing to political pressure from the states in stripping grizzlies of their ESA protections, while ignoring the very clear scientific evidence that this bear population is too small and too isolated to be assured of long-term survival.”
Victor, Idaho, resident Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, contended that the court’s ruling affirms that the Fish and Wildlife Service has prematurely tried to remove protections for Ursus arctos horribilis.
“I hope the agency will now concentrate on fully recovering these magnificent animals, not stripping them of needed safeguards,” Zaccardi said in a statement.
Grizzly bears, which once numbered an estimated 50,000 animals in the Lower 48, were first listed as protected animals under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. They’ve run a “zigzag course” since then, the ruling described, and now twice have been delisted before litigation triumphed, resuming federal protections for the species.
Grizzlies today number approximately 700 animals in the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where bears are closely monitored and populations are estimated annually. An untold number of grizzlies dwell on the fringes of the region, and their occupied range has spread steadily over the years. They have not connected with grizzlies from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, so Yellowstone’s bears continue to constitute an isolated, island population.
The state of Wyoming, which had planned to hunt down its fringe grizzly bears, joined the litigation as an intervener. The state disagreed with the Fish and Wildlife Service over what to challenge, and unsuccessfully attempted to appeal issues that federal wildlife officials were not challenging.
Gov. Mark Gordon said in a statement that he was “disappointed and frustrated” by the decision, and would review next steps with the state attorney general.
“Wyoming has done more research and hard work than virtually anyone else on the grizzly bear,” Gordon said. “Its population in Wyoming has exceeded biological recovery goals for more than a decade. Management of this important Wyoming species belongs in the hands of our state’s wildlife experts, and we hope to soon once again manage the species responsibly.”