The state of Wyoming is going to court again over grizzly bears, this time because federal wildlife officials missed a deadline to decide whether they would pursue removing Endangered Species Act protections.
State officials announced their petition in a cheeky press release this week, accusing the U.S. Department of Interior of “hibernating” on deadline.
“The petition seeks to remedy the DOI’s inaction,” the statement from Gov. Mark Gordon’s office said.
Under federal policy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 12 months to respond to petitions seeking Endangered Species Act protections for species — or in this case, to relinquish those protections. Wyoming filed its 27-page petition, which calls for the Northern Rocky states to manage Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies, back in January 2022.
Grizzlies have been delisted from the ESA twice before, in 2007 and 2017. Lawsuits from environmental advocacy groups successfully overturned those decisions both times, despite Wyoming’s opposition as an intervenor.
Meanwhile, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly population has continued to swell — nearly doubling the 500-animal recovery goal — though federal scientists now say that the species is running out of room to expand.
State officials have testified that they support using “whatever means is necessary” to obtain management authority over grizzlies, including by subverting the Endangered Species Act and gaining control through legislation. The Fish and Wildlife Service, meantime, has declared that it found Wyoming’s Jan. 2022 petition credible and would embark on a “comprehensive status review” — the analysis that’s supposed to be completed within a year.
Why it matters
Grizzly bear management is especially divisive because Ursus arctos horribilis is an emblem of the wild for many and its recovery is a noted conservation success story. The alpha omnivores also carry particular significance in some Native American cultures. Some representatives of the species are celebrated, while others are difficult to live with and even deadly.
Wyoming sought to hunt grizzlies during the last tenure of state management. A renewed hunt is a near certainty if federal authorities approve the state’s petition to again remove ESA protections. This time, state wildlife managers would likely target triple the number of bruins than previously proposed hunts.
Who said what
The state’s petition, filed May 24 in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming, asks the court to order the U.S. Department of Interior to issue a final determination on Wyoming’s delisting petition.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has missed the required 12-month determination deadline, and it’s time for the agency to be held accountable,” Gordon said in a statement.
Meantime, federal wildlife managers have not given a firm update on their timeline. Hilary Cooley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly recovery coordinator, spoke to the status of the federal government’s process at a May gathering of Yellowstone-area grizzly managers in Cody.
“We are updating all the data, all the science in our status assessment,” Cooley said. “Once we do that, we’ll send that out for peer-review.”
If Fish and Wildlife Service’s 12-month review receives Wyoming’s grizzly petition favorably, then the agency would issue a proposed rule to delist grizzlies, currently classified as threatened under the ESA. A final rule — and multiple rounds of public comment — would also precede any potential grizzly bear jurisdiction shift.
Wyoming officials intend to speed that process up.
Attorney General Bridget Hill, who signed the state’s petition, asked the court to give the Fish and Wildlife Service one month to decide whether to pursue delisting.