Early in July 2020, environmentally minded Americans celebrated when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone regions of Wyoming and Idaho. Now, grizzly populations in the area will continue to be safeguarded under the protections of the landmark 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and will no longer be threatened by trophy hunters.
Earthjustice, one of the nation’s—and the world’s—leading nonprofit environmental legal groups, represented the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the National Parks Conservation Association, some of the groups involved in the appeals case. The appeals case was the ultimate stop in a chain of consolidated lawsuits whose plaintiffs also included the Humane Society of the United States.
In 2017, the Trump administration’s US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) unceremoniously pulled federal government ESA safeguards from grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, giving the states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho the authority to manage the animals themselves. This action was a clear threat to the region’s grizzlies, which have endured excessive numbers of human-caused deaths for years.
Soon after the USFWS decision was made public, Wyoming and Idaho state wildlife managers began planning to allow trophy hunters to kill as many as two dozen grizzlies.
In 2018, Wyoming wildlife authorities approved the state’s first grizzly hunt in more than 40 years, authorizing the killing of as many as 22 bears. Idaho’s authorities approved the hunt of a single bear in fall 2018, although Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission decided not to approve a trophy hunt that year.
A temporary restraining order from a Montana federal district court stopped these hunts. Later in 2018, the court overturned the USFWS’ removal of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of species requiring federal protections. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision on appeal.
Protecting a big animal in a shrinking habitat
The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is a subspecies of the brown bear, a species that was once ranged across much of the American West. Today’s grizzlies populate only small areas in the Lower 48 states. Their range is much smaller than that of their black bear cousins. The total estimated grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2019 stood at 728.
The northwestern corner of Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are the only remaining parts of the continental US where larger populations of grizzlies still live. In 1975, the animals received ESA protection as a “threatened” species because of rapid habitat destruction and high numbers of human-caused deaths.
At that time, there were only 136 grizzlies left in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The grizzly’s population gains in recent years, thanks to ESA protections, were one of the reasons the USFWS cited when delisting the species in 2017.
Bringing bad-faith arguments to light
In upholding the decision of the Montana district court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the USFWS bypassed the scientific evidence when it stripped the grizzly bear of ESA protections. In addition, the Ninth Circuit judges noted that the USFWS neglected to consider how removing protections from the Yellowstone grizzly population might affect grizzlies in other parts of the country.
Thanks to the appeals court, grizzlies will continue to be listed as a “threatened” species under the provisions of the ESA, a piece of legislation that has successfully preserved 99 percent of the species under its protection. Now, grizzlies will be guarded against falling victim to the seasonal trophy hunts that would otherwise have gone forward not only in Wyoming and Idaho, but likely later in Montana.
In its decision, the appeals court made a statement critical of the USFWS’ heedless affirmation of a pro-trophy hunting method of conservation, which has shown dubious effectiveness over the years. The court also noted that the USFWS’ proposed actions would also have threatened the long-range genetic health of the grizzly bear populations in the region.
Vocal proponents of trophy hunting in the area included the National Rifle Association and other gun rights lobbyists. These groups fought the conservation groups at every step of the way, even going to the length of appealing parts of the Montana district court’s decision that the USFWS chose not to.
Celebrating the value of a wild species
In a world where the very existence of wilderness and wildlife species is under constant assault, Earthjustice and the groups it represented found much to celebrate in the Ninth Circuit’s decision. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe lauded the court’s ruling, noting the tribe’s generations-long dedication to ensuring that grizzly bears can continue to live and flourish.
Had the court not rejected the misguided USFWS proposal, grizzlies would have been stalked by trophy hunters for the first time in generations. The outcome represents a signal victory for everyone who cares about Yellowstone National Park and its wildlife.