Grizzlies returned to endangered list by judge's ruling

Sep 29, 2009

Grizzlies returned to endangered list by judge’s ruling

Idaho livestock spokesmen and a Wyoming Game and Fish official say a U.S. federal judge’s Sept. 21 ruling to relist about 600 Yellowstone grizzly bears as endangered will allow the grizzlies to expand their range and further reduce grazing allotments for cattle and sheep on federal lands.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, MT, re-designated the grizzlies as a threatened species and reversed a March 2007 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision that the grizzly population of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana had recovered to a sustainable level. The Yellowstone population has grown from an estimated 200 animals in 1981 to more than 600 now.

Molloy was responding to a lawsuit filed by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition based in Bozeman, MT, which contended the grizzly recovery was tenuous. Former U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho was listed as a defendant.

On Sept. 9, Molloy ruled that gray wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana could continue, denying an injunction request by environmentalists and animal rights activists to halt the hunts in the Northern Rockies.

In his grizzly ruling, however, Molloy cited climate change devastating whitebark pine forests, habitat loss pressures, and hunters as reasons to restore protection for the ferocious omnivores that once were on the brink of extinction. The Greater Yellowstone area of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana has one of the densest concentrations of grizzly bears in the 48 contiguous states.

Hunting grizzlies is illegal, but at least 20 were killed in 2008 by hunters in self defense or mistaking them for other animals. The federal government has spent more than $20 million to restore them. The Natural Resources Defense Council asserts a record 79 Yellowstone grizzlies died in 2008, or 13 percent of their population.

In a 46-page decision, Molloy sharply criticized the Bush administration’s delisting of the grizzlies as an endangered species, calling state and federal conservation plans inadequate, saying they relied too heavily on population monitoring. He ordered the Obama administration to immediately restore the grizzly bear’s threatened status, which was first imposed in 1975.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could appeal Molloy’s ruling, but the grizzlies would still be considered endangered. It also could rewrite a conservation strategy document and submit it for a new ruling.

Tom McDonnell, executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association, said he was shocked by Molloy’s decision because the Yellowstone grizzlies have fully recovered since the 1990s.

"The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is broken. We have these terrorists who claim to be environmentalists and activist judges who have perverted the act so bad," McDonnell said, noting the grizzly population is starting to migrate toward Colorado. "This is absolutely insane. These rulings have nothing to do with animals and everything to do with power. ... Here’s a population that has met recovery criteria for almost 20 years, yet we still cannot get it delisted."

For the judge to base part of his decision on climate change rather than forest management merits reminds McDonnell of a 2008 court ruling that also cited climate change as a reason to list polar bears as an endangered species because of melting ice caps.

"For cattlemen, this is a very dangerous, disappointing ruling," McDonnell said, noting sheep grazing allotments are virtually gone on federal lands. "It’s concerning in the sense we are losing more cattle allotments to grizzly bears. All they’re doing is extending the Yellowstone border out further and further."

Radical environmentalists want to extend a grizzly bear protection corridor from Yellowstone across Idaho to the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, McDonnell said.

John Emmerich, deputy Wyoming Game and Fish Department director in Cheyenne, said Molloy’s ruling "means further expansion and increase in grizzly numbers." He estimated about 75 percent of the Yellowstone grizzlies are in Wyoming and the rest in Idaho and Montana.

"In terms of on-the-ground operations, we’re back to where we were before delisting. The biggest impact is this really prevents the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, as well as other states, from implementing state management. Our perspective and goal is to stabilize wild grizzly bear distribution throughout Wyoming," the 30-year veteran said.

"With this current ruling, we cannot do this. I was hoping for a different outcome, but I can’t say I’m totally surprised."

Wyoming suffers sheep and cattle losses to grizzly depredation each year. The grizzly population has grown and expanded significantly the past 20 years, he said. "People are ready to get on with managing grizzly bears. They are a recovered population doing well."

A federal judge in Idaho is expected to rule any day on two pending lawsuits related to grizzly delisting. If his decision differs from Molloy’s, the case could end up in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for reconciliation, Emmerich said.

The Idaho lawsuit seeking ESA protections for grizzlies was filed by Earthjustice and Advocates for the West, representing the Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Center for Biological Diversity, Great Bear Foundation, and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

Stan Boyd, executive director for the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said ESA is flawed and outdated. Molloy’s ruling shows the ESA does not work, he said, adding Congress needs to resolve the discrepancy.

"It’s always kind of a battle. You’ve got folks back east who don’t care about the West. They think of it as a playground, but this is not only harming people here, but in many cases, the resource," Boyd said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent