A grizzly bear is released after being relocated. (photo courtesy of Mark Gocke, Wyoming Game and Fish Departmen)

Three conservation groups told the federal government Wednesday they will sue if it does not reconsider the number of female Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly bears that could be killed without legal consequences.

Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project, represented by the Earthjustice law firm, told three federal agencies Wednesday that they would file suit if their complaints aren’t resolved within 60 days.

The groups contend the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would allow the killing of three times the number of female grizzlies the agency itself says the Yellowstone population could sustain.

Fish and Wildlife Service actions violate the Endangered Species Act, the groups claim. The complaint focuses on two recent revisions of estimated grizzly deaths — one in Grand Teton National Park and the other on Forest Service grazing permits along the upper Green River.

“They’re really looking at these, we feel, in isolation,” said Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club’s senior representative in Bozeman, Mont. When the agency’s estimates for “incidental takes” across the whole ecosystem are compiled, up to 65 female grizzly bears could be killed in a year, she said.

“It could happen legally,” Rice said of the killings. “That number is over three times more the number the Fish and Wildlife Service itself says is the mortality threshold.”

Incidental take is the number of bears Fish and Wildlife anticipates would be lost as a result of a federal action — like allowing cattle grazing or elk hunting. The agency would use its Endangered Species Act authority to seek changes to hunting or grazing rules only if more bears were lost than anticipated.

In the letters, Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso called Fish and Wildlife Service thinking “irrational.” Letters went to National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service representatives also. The Fish and Wildlife Service actions violate the Endangered Species Act, the letters say.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ryan Moehring said his agency’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation. However an agency biologist told WyoFile last year the annual authorized incidental take in the ecosystem might amount 10 to 12 bears, given that each estimate extends over several years.

Conservationists contend all deaths could happen legally in a single year.

The conservation action is unfortunate, said Albert Sommers, a state representative and rancher who grazes cattle on the upper Green River allotments.

“I hope people understand for the ESA to be successful we have to manage these species on working landscapes and make it beneficial for both,” he said. “We have to manage in a fashion that doesn’t drive all the uses off the landscape or else the ESA will go away.”

Fish and Wildlife Service increased the estimate for grizzly losses in Grand Teton following the 2012 killing of a grizzly by a group of hunters. They said they shot in self-defense.

On the upper Green River, a third of the ecosystem’s grizzly bear mortalities occur on 1.7 percent of occupied grizzly habitat, the groups said. Fish and Wildlife increased its incidental take estimate there last year.

There are more grizzlies on the upper Green River than there were a decade ago because of the success of the Endangered Species Act, Sommers said. Across the ecosystem, there are more bears and they occupy more areas, he said.

Conservationists say Yellowstone grizzly numbers are stable, not growing. More bear conflicts might be the result of the loss of key foods.

Those include cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake, where exotic lake trout have gobbled them up, and whitebark pine nuts, decimated by diseases and insects.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee reviews grizzly mortalities annually to ensure the species is not endangered. Population health is figured on deaths, reproductive trends and other factors.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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