(EnviroNews Nature) — On August 30, 2017, WildEarth Guardians (Guardians), a nonprofit environmental group legendary for suing the federal government on wildlife issues, sued the Trump Administration — this time for stripping the iconic Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) of its endangered species status — a move the Administration made on June 30. Guardians is represented by attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) in the case.
“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,” Guardians stated in a press release.
Back in June when the bear was delisted, President Trump’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said, “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners” — a sentiment not shared by conservationists.
“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.”
A draft copy of Guardians’ legal complaint, obtained by EnviroNews earlier this week, accuses the federal government, and specifically Secretary Zinke, the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) alongside its Director Greg Sheehan, for failing to evaluate how delisting the Yellowstone grizzly “may affect the survival and conservation of the remaining grizzlies in the contiguous United States.” In these regards, the suit accuses USFWS of acting in a manner “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”
Grizzlies presently occupy only two percent of their historic range in the lower-48 states, dropping from around 50,000 bears when settlements began, to around 1,800 today. By the mid-1970s, the Yellowstone grizzly’s numbers had plummeted to as low as 136 bears, and in 1975, Ursus arctos horribilis became one of the first animals listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The bear was already amongst the first species to be listed to the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.
Guardians also elucidates in clause 25 of its complaint that “Grizzlies have one of the slowest reproductive rates of all terrestrial animals,” with the “average age of first reproduction by a grizzly in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem [being] six years old.”
One of the greatest concerns to scientists in the recovery of the bear is genetic diversity. Researchers say it is imperative that the GYE population be allowed to adjoin with other nearby, but still unconnected, grizzly populations in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — a task they say will be impossible without federal safeguards. But now, “Grizzly bears inside the Distinct Population Segment (DPS) 25 boundary are now classified as a ‘game’ species,” the lawsuit states. Clause 76 of the suit reminds the court that all three states in question have already “announced plans to allow recreational hunting of grizzly bears within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”
Guardians’ lawsuit elaborated this way:
The Service’s 2017 final delisting rule does not restrict where the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming may allow recreational hunting of grizzly bears outside National Parks. Recreational hunting may be allowed on lands adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. Recreational hunting may be allowed in areas where grizzly bears congregate to consume food sources, including moth sites, carcasses, root fields, and spawning areas. Recreational hunting may be allowed in important linkage zone or connectivity areas used by grizzly bears that disperse outside Yellowstone National Park.
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are all red states well-known for their big predator hunts. When USFWS’s protection-stripping rule was finalized in June, it turned management of the creatures over to the wildlife programs in those states — states that time and again have included predator hunts as part of their “conservation” strategies. These states have even played host to wolf and coyote killing derbies in the past — events that have enraged conservationists and animal rights activists alike.
“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. “Under this illegal and ill-advised plan, dispersing grizzlies essential to species recovery would be the first to die.”
The lawsuit also contends that it is illegal for USFWS to delist an isolated population within a “metapopulation” because “in 1975, the Service listed all grizzly bears in the contiguous United States as a single, threatened species under the ESA,” and furthermore that, “under the ESA, a fragment of a species’ current range cannot be declared recovered before the species is recovered at the larger, regional scale.”
In its press release, Guardians also pointed out that the Yellowstone grizzly has been unusually hard hit over the past two years, adding to the case to put the predator back on the endangered list. Guardians stated:
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.
WildEarth Guardians, alongside the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the federal government in a behemoth decade-long lawsuit that resolved in 2011. The result: the USFWS agreed as part of the landmark settlement, to move forward with protective measures for over 800 previously unprotected imperiled species. The Center for Biological Diversity, often partnered with WildEarth Guardians in wildlife actions, boasts a 93 percent success rate on wildlife cases against the federal government. The courts have frequently sided with conservation groups in the past. Now, the public is watching and wondering if the courts will force the federal government to protect a beleaguered species once again in the case of the Yellowstone grizzly.
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