In a landmark ruling yesterday, a federal district court in Montana held that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cut corners and ignored science when it rushed to remove federal protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The court’s order restores federal protection to this celebrated and imperiled population of bears.
Following FWS’ 2017 decision to remove protections—which prioritized politics over principles enshrined in the federal Endangered Species Act—the Humane Society of the United States and other conservation organizations and Native American Tribes filed lawsuits in opposition. After a hearing on August 30, Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen issued a temporary restraining order that prohibited Wyoming and Montana from commencing the first grizzly bear trophy hunt in decades, which the states planned to open on Sept. 1.
The court’s final ruling not only prohibits this year’s trophy hunt, but completely restores federal protections, invalidating newly adopted state rules to allow liberal killing of bears by hunters. State wildlife managers unfairly malign bears based on perceived threats to livestock, without evidence that individual bears pose an imminent threat to cattle or other animals grazing on federal or private land.
“We are grateful to Judge Christensen for upholding the fundamental tenets of the Endangered Species Act and reviving essential protections for grizzly bears,” said Nicholas Arrivo, staff attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, who argued the case on behalf of HSUS and the Fund for Animals. “The Fish and Wildlife Service brazenly repeated the same errors that we successfully challenged when the agency tried to remove protections for wolves in the Great Lakes and we hope the agency will finally stop playing politics with our native carnivore species.”
The district court ruled in favor of the HSUS and co-plaintiffs, holding that the federal government failed to consider the impacts that removing protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem would have on other populations of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. The court agreed with plaintiffs that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s choice to rubberstamp the states’ dubious conservation strategy was based on a “concession to the states in order to reach a deal” and constituted “a failure of reasoned decision making.”
Grizzly bears continue to be threatened with extinction due to dwindling food resources in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and the court’s overturning of the FWS delisting rule ensures that the full force of federal resources will be devoted to the species’ recovery across the lower 48 states. The court held that the agency “failed to logically support its conclusion that the current Greater Yellowstone population is not threatened by its isolation,” a decision that the court found to be “both illogical and inconsistent with the cautious approach demanded by the ESA.”