A US District Court judge ruled to officially call off planned grizzly bear hunts in Wyoming and Idaho, saying the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) erred when they stripped the Yellowstone-area predators of their threatened species status last year.
Grizzly bears found in the Greater Yellowstone area were scheduled to be hunted for the first time since being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) more than four decades ago. US District Judge Dana Christensen ruled the USFWS failed to consider how de-listing would affect nearby protected populations, thus ruling the agency’s analysis to be “arbitrary and capricious”, a basic standard for reviewing appeals in the US.
"This Court's review, constrained by the Constitution and the laws enacted by Congress, is limited to answering a yes-or-no question: Did the United States Fish and Wildlife Service... exceed its legal authority when it delisted the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear?" read court documents. “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."
In the 48-page order filed Monday, Christensen wrote the decision “is not about the ethics of hunting, and it is not about solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts as a practical or philosophical matter.”
One of the first animals to be listed under federal protection, Greater Yellowstone grizzlies were delisted last year, stripping them of protections after the population had recovered from a total of 136 in 1975 to 690 today. Following the June 2017 delisting, Wyoming and Idaho had approved plans for permitted hunting to begin later this month. Following the announcement, Christensen halted the hunt with a temporary restraining order in August. Putting the apex predators back on the ESA means the species will still receive special protections and management will return to the federal government.
While Yellowstone bear populations are expanding outward, they are still not connected to other major US grizzly populations further north near the Canadian border, making the subspecies genetically vulnerable.
“The Service appropriately recognized that the population’s genetic health is a significant factor demanding consideration,” Christensen wrote. “However, it misread the scientific studies it relied upon, failing to recognize that all evidence suggests that the long-term viability of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly is far less certain absent new genetic material.”
The USFWS told IFLScience it will examine the ruling to determine its impact on the future of the species.
"We stand behind our scientific finding that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear is biologically recovered and no longer requires protection under the Endangered Species Act. Our determination was based on our rigorous interpretation of the law and is supported by the best available science and a comprehensive conservation strategy developed with our federal, state, and tribal partners," the agency said.