Two conservation groups filed a complaint in federal court in Washington, D.C. on Friday claiming the government isn’t protecting Grand Teton National Park grizzly bears during an annual park elk hunt.
The suit names Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and others, and claims violations of the Endangered Species Act. Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project seek to overturn a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opinion that the Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly population would not be jeopardized if elk hunters killed four grizzlies in Grand Teton over a nine-year period.
The federal agency tasked with saving grizzly bears increased its estimate of grizzly bear killings after hunters killed a bear in Grand Teton on Thanksgiving Day, 2012. The four grizzlies that the Fish and Wildlife Service anticipates hunters will kill would otherwise be protected by the Endangered Species Act.
But in 2013 the federal agency issued an opinion that said the loss of four bears would not jeopardize the Yellowstone area population. It consequently made the anticipated killings “exempt from civil and criminal liability,” the complaint says.
Such immunity is an “unlawful federal action … [in] … one of our nation’s premiere national parks,” that’s the last refuge for grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, the complaint says.
U.S Fish and Wildlife Service officials would not comment Friday, citing agency policy regarding litigation. The conservation groups warned the Interior Department earlier this year that they intended to sue if their objections weren’t resolved.
The complaint says up to 65 Yellowstone ecosystem grizzlies could be killed under the Fish and Wildlife Service data that also was used in determining the Grand Teton limit. That’s “more than triple the annual sustainable level of female grizzly bear mortality that [Fish and Wildlife Service] has established for the Yellowstone region,” the suit says.
The court action says winter elk feeding on the National Elk Refuge compounds the problem. “That feeding program artificially inflates the local elk population such that the extraordinary step of hunting wildlife within a national park has been deemed necessary to control the population,” the suit says.
It also argues that a loss of whitebark pine trees to diseases causes grizzlies to seek hunters’ meat, bringing them closer to people, trouble and death. “Increasingly, bears have turned to meat as an alternative, high-quality food source, which in turn has brought grizzlies into closer and ever more frequent contact with humans, including hunters,” the suit says.
Montana attorney Tim Preso with the group Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of the two groups. “What is of concern is the ripple effects of this feeding program and hunting in a national park,” he said in an interview. “The consequences now extend to killing four grizzly bears.”
While Preso said it is unlikely that 65 grizzly bears would be legally killed in a year, “the Fish and Wildlife Service has offered nothing to prevent that from happening.” The agency would nickel-and-dime the population without taking a look at “the big picture,” he said.
Those backing the lawsuit said the Fish and Wildlife Service and Grand Teton did not adequately look at ways to reduce conflicts between hunters and bears. The park made several changes to its annual hunt program after the Thanksgiving shooting. Among those was elimination of the wooded Snake River bottomlands from the hunt program. But that did not satisfy the two groups.
“Allowing four additional grizzly bears — a threatened species — to be killed in one of our nation’s most iconic national parks, without even requiring significant measures to reduce conflicts between people and bears, is inexcusable,” Sierra Club’s Bonnie Rice said in a statement. Western Watersheds agreed.
“Throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appears to have forgotten basic math,” Jonathan Ratner said in the statement. “They have been handing out permits for the killing of grizzly bears like candy but they have conveniently forgotten to add up all of the take they have authorized.”
Preso rejected arguments that environmental groups are going to court too often and collecting attorneys’ fees. “Congress recognized the enforcement of this would largely be left in the hands of the public and didn’t feel the public should have to bear the financial burden for the whole nation,” he said.
To obtain fees, a side first has to win, he said. Critics of environmental litigation are really saying “we’d rather these laws not be enforced,” Preso said. “The question is, when you’re having to kill grizzly bears to sustain a hunt, is this what a national park is supposed to be?”