BOISE, Idaho -- A federal court last week upheld a decision to keep grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem under the protections of the Endangered Species Act, ending plans in Idaho and Wyoming to allow grizzly hunts.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a 2018 district court decision blocking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from removing the bears from the endangered species list. The district court case began in 2017 as Idaho and Wyoming planned to issue tags for 2018 grizzly hunts. Idaho planned to issue a single tag, as it has the smallest grizzly population of the three states.
The Wednesday decision by the appeals court appears to put an end to future grizzly hunts unless the Fish and Wildlife Service again succeeds in removing the bears from Endangered Species Act protections.
Grizzly bears' population and conservation status in the U.S. is complicated. Grizzlies in mainland Alaska have a thriving population and no special protections, while the bears are listed as "threatened" in the lower 48 states, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The "threatened" distinction is used for animals whose populations are slightly healthier than "endangered" levels but could become endangered in the future.
Grizzlies first received Endangered Species Act protections in 1975, two years after the legislation went into effect. In 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem -- in eastern Idaho, northwest Wyoming and southwest Montana -- a "distinct population segment," which removed them from the endangered species list. The agency was ordered by federal courts in 2009 to restore protections. In 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared this population segment recovered and no longer qualified for Endangered Species Act protections. That opened the door for hunts in Idaho and Wyoming.
In the 2018 court ruling that was upheld on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider the impact that delisting the Yellowstone grizzlies would have on other grizzly populations in the lower 48. Christensen also said the agency "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" when it chose to delist the population segment in 2017, arguing that the Fish and Wildlife Service acted on political pressure from states and other interest groups.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bears aren't the only grizzlies in Idaho. Grizzlies from the Selkirk, Cabinet-Yaak and Northern Continental Divide recovery areas are present in North Idaho, and an entire recovery area -- the Bitterroot -- exists in the mountains of Central Idaho. In 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the Bitterroot recovery area was unoccupied, and the agency considers it an "unessential experimental population," meaning bears could be reintroduced to the area but are not considered essential to other species' survival there.
Still, grizzlies' range in Idaho appears to be growing. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population has expanded outside its original recovery zone, and in the last year, grizzly bears have been caught on trail cameras or identified via tracks and DNA samples in places they haven't been seen in decades.
Conservation groups, which were part of the 2017 court case to restore grizzly protections, said that's not an indication that their populations are healthier. Instead, they argue the bears have been forced to expand their range as climate change and habitat destruction affect their food sources.
"The Ninth Circuit's ruling is very important because the Yellowstone grizzly bear population is expanding but not growing," said Mike Garrity, executive director for Alliance for the Wild Rockies, in a news release praising the Wednesday ruling. "The population has not been growing for the last 20 years. Grizzlies are expanding because their food sources are declining, whitebark pine trees and Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations have been decimated. Yellowstone grizzlies have been moving out of their core habitat in a desperate search for food. " Garrity said the eventual recovery goal for grizzlies should be a connected population in the Northwest.
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