Just days before the first grizzly bear hunting seasons in decades were set to open in Idaho and Wyoming in early September, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen put the seasons on hold and then stopped them altogether on Sept. 24 by returning grizzlies to the endangered species list. Environmentalists heralded the decision saying it was necessary to protect the bears while politicians, such as Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Manchin, Barrasso announce bill to revegetate forests after devastating fires Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs MORE (R-Wyo.), of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, proclaimed, “the grizzly is recovered in Wyoming. Period."
Supposedly, decisions about listing and delisting species under the ESA are to be based on science. Therefore, you’d think that it would be a matter of whether there are enough bears to maintain a viable population.
Today there are an estimated 55,000 grizzly bears in North America, most of which live in remote parts of Canada and Alaska. Given those numbers, surely grizzly bears are not threatened with extinction.
Environmentalists, however, contend that the question is not whether the total population of grizzlies is viable, but whether the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) sub-population is. Even on that basis grizzly populations would appear to be sustainable. That population now numbers 700, far more than the 136 that lived in the area when the grizzly bear was listed as “threatened” in 1975.
In removing the grizzly from the endangered species list, U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues | Trump Interior Secretary Zinke files to run for Congress, again | Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill MORE said that “this achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes.” Despite the judge’s ruling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stood behind its decision saying the “grizzly bear is biologically recovered and no longer requires protection.”
Here is further evidence of recovery. In his book, “Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark,” renowned ecologist, Daniel Botkin calculates that during the time of the expedition there was a density of 3.7 grizzly bears per 100 square miles.
If there were only 125 bears in Yellowstone, less than biologists estimate, the density would be the same as when the Corps of Discovery passed through Montana. Additionally, at that time of the expedition, grizzlies were not mountain animals.
Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice, a party to the suit, said Christensen’s ruling was necessary because bears are absent from their historic range. They are, but the historic range does not include Yellowstone, where densities exceed those observed by Lewis and Clark in 1805.
The groups filing the suit against delisting, however, used a different argument to get the matter out of the hands of scientists and into the hands of Christensen. They argued that the genetic pool of Yellowstone sub-population was not robust enough to continue its recovery and that hunting would slow merging of the sub-population genes with northern grizzly bears, especially those in Glacier National Park. The judge bought the argument though it was based on speculation more than science.
Having a judge make decisions about whether species should be listed as endangered, makes the Trump administration’s efforts to devolve authority to local and state agencies all the more salient. The icon of conservation, Teddy Roosevelt, advocated for scientific wildlife management by state agencies. Though their efforts proved futile, state agencies were the first to pass laws restricting hunting of passenger pigeons. Since then honed their management tools to bring elk populations back to historic highs and to historic ranges and returned populations of native fish to streams. Professional wildlife managers have demonstrated their ability to sustain wildlife populations. Their tools, not the least of which is hunting, are far better suited for sustaining wildlife populations, including grizzly bears, than the judge’s gavel.
Terry Anderson is the John and Jean DeNault Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and past president of the Property and Environment Research Center, Bozeman, MT.