Battle Begins to Restore Protections for Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bears

By WildEarth Guardian

Wednesday, WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging the agency's flawed rule stripping grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Endangered Species Act protections. The service's premature removal of crucial federal safeguards undermines the recovery of the species as a whole, while subjecting grizzlies stepping outside the safety of our national parks to state-sanctioned trophy hunting.

"The Service failed to carry out its paramount—and mandatory—duty to ensure grizzly bears in the contiguous United States are recovered to the point at which the protections of the Endangered Species Act are no longer necessary," said Kelly Nokes, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians. "The Service's decision is riddled with flaws, not based in science nor the law, and places this icon of all that is wild squarely in the crosshairs of extinction once again."

The lawsuit faults the service for illegally designating grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone as a "distinct population segment" and simultaneously removing protections from the population without first considering the impact such removal will have on imperiled grizzly populations located elsewhere in the lower 48 states. The suit also highlights the service's failure to use the best available science when it determined that grizzlies in the Yellowstone region are recovered.

"Biologists agree that grizzly recovery hinges on connecting isolated populations and distributing the genes they carry," said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing WildEarth Guardians. "Under this illegal and ill-advised plan, dispersing grizzlies essential to species recovery would be the first to die."

Grizzlies in the Yellowstone region remain threatened by dwindling food sources, habitat loss and fragmentation, and illegal killing. The Yellowstone population is isolated and has yet to connect to bears elsewhere in the U.S., including to bears in and around Glacier National Park. Grizzlies also have yet to reclaim key historic habitats, including the Bitterroot Range along the Montana-Idaho border.

Hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction, grizzly bear populations in the contiguous U.S. declined drastically from nearly 50,000 bears to only a few hundred by the 1930s. In response to the decline, the service designated the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, a move that likely saved them from extinction. The species has since struggled to hang on, with only roughly 1,800 currently surviving in the lower 48 states. Grizzlies remain absent from nearly 98 percent of their historic range.

At last count, approximately 690 grizzly bears resided in the Greater Yellowstone region in 2016, down from 2015's count of 717 bears. The last two years had near record-breaking grizzly mortality, with at least 139 bears killed since 2015 (including 20 documented deaths thus far in 2017, 58 dead bears in 2016 and 61 dead grizzlies in 2015). Of those, at least 98 bears died due to human-causes and 30 deaths remain undetermined or are still under investigation.

Wednesday's lawsuit challenges the service's final rule removing Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in U.S. District Court for the District of Montana. WildEarth Guardians is represented by Matthew Bishop and John Mellgren of the Western Environmental Law Center and Kelly Nokes of WildEarth Guardians.

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