Judge restores protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears

Judge restores protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears
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A federal judge on Monday restored Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, reversing a decision the Trump administration made last year.

The District Court for Montana ruled Monday that federal officials didn't consider threats to the species when they lifted threatened species protections on the Yellowstone grizzly more than a year ago, opening up the animal to hunting for the first time in decades.

"By delisting the Greater Yellowstone grizzly without analyzing how delisting would affect the remaining members of the lower-48 grizzly designation, the Service failed to consider how reduced protections in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would impact the other grizzly populations," Judge Dana Christensen wrote in his order.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced in June 2017 that grizzlies would no longer be listed as a threatened species in and around Yellowstone, affecting about 700 grizzlies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

Officials said that conservation efforts for the bear, a more than fourfold increase in its population and state policies designed to protect them show that the delisting is warranted.

Prior to Christensen's ruling, Wyoming and Idaho were planning to allow licensed grizzly hunts. They would have been the first trophy hunts of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park in more than 40 years.

Christensen last month issued an order temporarily blocking the hunts and last week issued an order extending the restraining order.

Christensen wrote in his order that despite the public interest surrounding the case the "policy implications of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly delisting are significant."

He said that "by refusing to analyze the legal and functional impact of delisting on other continental grizzly populations, the [FWS] entirely failed to consider an issue of extreme importance."

The administration argued that conservation efforts for the bear over the past four decades were successful, and that they were returning protection decisions to the states. 

FWS under President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE has made inroads to change the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented, including internal agency pushes to streamline the delisting of species. Supporters call the changes necessary steps toward modernization that focus on rehabilitating a population of animals or plants and getting them off the endangered or threatened list rather than let them remain on it indefinitely. Conservationists, on the other hand, argue that removing the protections allotted under ESA is detrimental to species, even if they have rebounded.

Following the judge's decision, Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenate votes to end debate on criminal justice reform bill The Year Ahead: Dems under pressure to deliver on green agenda White House jumps into fight over energy subsidies MORE (R-Wyo.) wrote in a statement Tuesday, "Yet again, the courts are replacing science-based recovery measures with personal political preference. The grizzly is recovered in Wyoming. Period."

"This is a prime example why Congress should modernize the Endangered Species Act," he added. "We should elevate the role of states and local experts who are on the ground working with the grizzly – and other endangered species – on a daily basis."

Environmentalists and Native Americans opposed the administration's move to delist grizzlies as a threatened species, arguing that the bears face threats from climate change and loss of habitat.

Tim Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice representing some of the litigants, said the court's ruling showed that the government had illegally removed grizzly bears from the protected species list.

“The grizzly is a big part of why the Yellowstone region remains among our nation’s last great wild places,” he said in a statement. “This is a victory for the bears and for people from all walks of life who come to this region to see the grizzly in its natural place in the world.”

Lawrence Killsback, president of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, said the tribe was celebrating the victory.

“We have a responsibility to speak for the bears, who cannot speak for themselves. Today we celebrate this victory and will continue to advocate on behalf of the Yellowstone grizzly bears until the population is recovered, including within the Tribe’s ancestral homeland in Montana and other states," he said.

In July, the administration introduced a proposal that would significantly change the way it enforces ESA, including steps to withdraw a policy that offered the same protections for threatened species as for endangered species unless otherwise specified and efforts to make it more difficult to protect habitat near land where endangered species live. The comment period of the rule ended this week.

The House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday will consider a package of nine GOP-backed bills introduced by the Congressional Western Caucus first unveiled by the Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarPressure builds as Pelosi, Schumer, Trump meet over border wall demands Zinke picks fight with key Dem at an odd time Overnight Energy — Sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board — Texas coal plant to shut down | Macron rejects trade deals with climate pact outsiders | Vote on park funding bills to miss deadline MORE (R-Ariz.)-led caucus in July.

The bills are aimed at a number of changes, like incentivizing voluntary conservation measures, making it easier for people outside of government to get a species' protections removed and to prohibit designating man-made water projects as critical habitat.

This article was updated Sept. 25 at 9:01 a.m.