MISSOULA – Attorneys are still reading over a federal judge’s ruling which restores protections for grizzly bears living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
But the ones who brought the sweeping lawsuit believe the decision will also impact what happens with grizzlies elsewhere in the Northern Rockies.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen vacated last year’s ruling by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking Yellowstone grizzlies off the list of Threatened Species. That decision last summer turned grizzly management outside the national parks over to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Christensen’s ruling stopped Idaho and Wyoming’s plans to hunt the big bears starting this fall.
In the ruling, Christensen faulted the Service for failing to consider how de-listing the Yellowstone bears would impact their overall recovery. That’s a key point, since it comes even as efforts are underway to declare the grizzlies on the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, in the Glacier region, also recovered.
The full impact of the ruling is being researched, but one of the key attorneys believes Christensen’s decision also puts the brakes on de-listing the northern grizzlies.
“The government’s approach of doing this surgical de-listing of removal of protections for grizzlies in Yellowstone and not thinking about grizzlies more broadly across the Northern Rockies and even on into the Northwest where there’s still grizzly populations and the impact of the Yellowstone population being subjected to more threats on those other bears is a big problem,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso.
Debate over lifting protections for the NCDE grizzlies has been building over the past year, with wildlife managers saying the number and distribution of bears shows recovery, but residents and other groups saying protection should continue. Preso says Monday’s ruling gives time for review.
“We have an opportunity now to look at the idea of connecting up the Yellowstone population to the grizzly population further north in the Glacier-Bob Marshall Country and even opening the door to a recovery in the Bitterroot, which has long been the ‘Holy Grail’ for grizzly recovery in the Lower 48. And so I think we have another chance now,” Preso said.
Preso believes Christensen’s ruling on the Yellowstone bears will force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider the approach of considering different areas “distinct populations”, which he says it good for Yellowstone are grizzlies, and the bears on the Northern Divide too.
“The most durable way to ensure we have grizzlies for the future is not to have isolated island populations like we currently have in Yellowstone but to have a Yellowstone population that’s connected with grizzlies further to the north and ultimately we have grizzlies re-occupying their historic habitat in the Bitterroot,” Preso said. “And at that point I think we can start to have a shared vision of recovery. But the government didn’t want to go there. They looked at Yellowstone alone, even thought it’s totally isolated, and decided to declare victory.”
We’re waiting to see if the federal government and the states will appeal Christensen’s ruling.