Appeals court says Yellowstone grizzlies must remain protected
Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.

A federal appeals court last week upheld a Montana judge’s decision that the federal government must protect grizzly bears near Yellowstone National Park.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling found the Interior Department failed to prove that a decline in whitebark pine — a key food source for grizzlies — would not threaten the species’ survival.

But the San Francisco-based appeals court reversed U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s 2009 finding that existing regulatory mechanisms failed to ensure the species’ continued recovery.

The ruling came as a victory for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman, Mont.-based conservation group that challenged the government’s decision to remove grizzlies from the federal endangered species list in 2007.

“We appreciate the strong language of the 9th Circuit Court saying that [the Fish and Wildlife Service] must further study the demise of the whitebark pine and its impact upon grizzlies before it can delist the Yellowstone griz,” Mike Clark, the group’s executive director, said in an email. “We look forward to working with the feds and state officials on plans that ultimately will delist the griz when it is appropriate.”

The decision means federal agencies must continue to manage lands to protect the iconic species, which could affect activities like logging, mining and road building in the West.

At the time of the species’ original listing in 1975, grizzly numbers in the lower 48 states had dwindled from about 50,000 in 1,800 to between 136 and 312 near Yellowstone, the court wrote. The species has since rebounded slightly, numbering more than 500 at the time of its delisting in 2007, FWS said.

“It’s certainly welcome news,” Bill Snape, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said of the decision.

“The Interior Department completely swept under the rug the reality that the species is losing one of its major food sources to climate change,” he said. “Interior’s behavior was the definition of ‘arbitrary and capricious.’”

In its delisting decision, Interior cited studies stating that while there is a connection between whitebark pine and grizzly survival, the animals will adapt because they are opportunistic omnivores and will not be threatened by the loss of whitebark pine (E&ENews PM, Sept. 21, 2009).

The states of Montana and Wyoming defended the government’s delisting decision in the case, arguing the bears won’t go extinct under state management.

As grizzly numbers rise in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, some have blamed the animals for preying on livestock, damaging property and sometimes attacking humans.

(Banner photo by Shane Lin/Flickr)

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