By Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club
Yesterday, the bears won.
Just days before a second temporary restraining order was set to expire, Judge Dana Christensen ruled in favor of Tribal Nations and conservationists in reinstating Yellowstone grizzlies’ Endangered Species protections, saving them from Wyoming and Idaho’s trophy hunts. His decision stated that the federal government had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in removing Endangered Species protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region last summer. Working to protect grizzly bears from delisting and trophy hunting over the last 4+ years, I was, needless to say, elated by this decision. Twenty-three grizzly bears will not end up as trophies on someone’s wall. Despite best efforts by the Trump Administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, Yellowstone’s grizzlies are once again protected.
In his decision, Judge Christensen ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) must look at recovery of grizzly bears as a whole across the lower 48; in other words, the agency can’t just carve out one grizzly population without analyzing how delisting that population would affect recovery of other grizzly populations, such as bears around Glacier National Park and the Cabinet-Yaak area in northern Montana. “By refusing to analyze the legal and functional impact of delisting on other continental grizzly populations, the service entirely failed to consider an issue of extreme importance,” Christensen wrote in his decision issued late Monday night. “Moreover, the service’s analysis of the threats faced by the Greater Yellowstone grizzly segment was arbitrary and capricious.”
Over 200 Tribal Nations have opposed delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly population and trophy hunting of the grizzly, which they consider a sacred relative. Still, Secretary Zinke has ignored Tribes’ calls for government-to-government consultation.
In a press release, Chief Stanley Grier, Chief of the Piikani Nation and President of the Blackfoot Confederacy Chiefs said:
“In wake of the court’s decision, we again offer our hand to Secretary Zinke and invite him to sit down with us on a government-to-government basis and discuss the implementation of the grizzly treaty signed by over 200 tribes. The treaty presents the solutions to this ongoing issue. The future of the grizzly bear and tribal, federal and state cooperation lies in the grizzly treaty. With our sister tribes in the coalition of conscience we prevailed today in defense of the sacred for our children and our future generations, and we did so without having to make some of our strongest arguments. As we have said repeatedly, the grizzly bear is fundamental to our religious and spiritual practices. Today, with Judge Christensen’s decision, those religious rights and our treaty rights remain intact, “
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In the near future, there will likely be pushback from the states, congressional delegations from the region and a potential appeal by USFWS to the Ninth Circuit of Judge Christensen’s ruling. Sierra Club will remain vigilant and fight any attempts to reverse yesterday’s decision in partnership with our Tribal and conservation allies. We will also continue to closely monitor grizzly bear management and mortalities in Greater Yellowstone.
Yesterday’s court ruling also has implications for grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide area near Glacier National Park in northern Montana. While USFWS hoped to release a proposed rule to remove Endangered Species protections from that population by the end of this year, Judge Christensen’s decision essentially said “not so fast.” Clearly, USFWS jumped to remove protections from Yellowstone grizzlies without properly determining how that action would affect other populations, as required by the Endangered Species Act. Sierra Club has long advocated that full recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48 means a thriving, connected population of several thousand bears.
Grizzly bears are the heart and soul of the Greater Yellowstone region. Thank you to all our members and supporters across the country who have fought alongside us for years to protect Yellowstone’s majestic and still-vulnerable grizzly bears. With this legal victory, grizzlies in Yellowstone, and across the lower 48, now have a much greater chance at full recovery. That’s something we can all celebrate.