A federal judge in Montana placed a temporary restraining order on planned hunts for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Judge Dana Christensen’s order, announced August 30, will delay scheduled hunts for as many as 23 bears in Idaho and Wyoming for at least two weeks. Hunts were scheduled to start September 1 in some parts of Wyoming.
“This is certainly disappointing for those who were planning to hunt on opening day, but the temporary restraining order is simply a time-out and not a final decision on the merits, which could come at any time,” said Sportsmen’s Alliance president and CEO Evan Heusinkveld, adding, “The judge relied on a dubious 9th circuit case law reference by stating that irreparable harm can be caused by the death of one bear in this year’s hunt instead of the more reasonable and scientific approach of evaluating impacts on population levels.”
Specifically, Christensen wrote, “The threat of death to individual bears posed by the scheduled hunts is sufficient” to temporarily halt the hunts, adding the restraining order was put in place because anti-hunting groups “were likely to succeed” based on their arguments. He also wrote, “Organizational plaintiffs…have established personal interests in the enjoyment of the species.”
Plaintiffs include the Humane Society of the United States, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Center for Biological Diversity, Wild Earth Guardians and nine Native American tribes, among others. Intervenors arguing on behalf of Wyoming, Idaho and the US Fish and Wildlife Service include the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Safari Club International and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The planned hunts would have been the first in 44 years. Grizzlies were taken off the Endangered Species List in 2007 and state management likely would have led to hunts thereafter. However, anti-hunters successfully challenged the delisting, despite bear numbers exceeding a delisting goal of 600 animals.
An estimated 135 grizzlies lived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem when the bears were first placed on the ESL in 1975, but conservation efforts by Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and federal and tribal agencies helped restore grizzlies in the Yellowstone region. Biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service place the current population at 700 or more animals, which occupy about 8.1 million acres. That range has doubled since 2002.
The allotted tags, 22 in Wyoming and one in Idaho, represent less than 3 percent of the GYE’s grizzly population and are well below the mortality threshold that would impact populations, according to researchers. Studies conducted by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team determined that mortality rates would have to exceed 9 percent of all adult females and 20 percent of all adult males to impact populations. Only one female would be allowed to be killed by hunters during the planned hunt.
Lawyers for anti-hunting groups that sought to block the scheduled hunts claimed the delisting process relied on faulty and incomplete science.
“Many of the plaintiffs’ arguments were the same arguments used when grizzlies were first taken off the ESL in 2007. They were also claiming that delisting the Yellowstone population would have somehow threatened other grizzly populations that are not connected to the Yellowstone population and might force the delisting of those other populations,” said Jim Lister, an attorney representing the Sportsmen’s Alliance.
That argument, however, was little more than an end-around that does not address the science specific to the GYE population.
“We have mountains of data that show that grizzlies are recovered under the guidelines set forth by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and that populations are not at risk,” said IGBST team leader Frank Van Manen in an interview with Petersen’s Hunting in July. “They have reached their biological and social carrying capacities. That is pretty indisputable. Grizzly bears tend to self-regulate their populations. Cubs have higher survival rates when there is available habitat and lower survival when densities exceed the carrying capacity. Adult males will kill cubs when populations start to reach carrying capacity, which is what appears to be happening within the Demographic Monitoring Area.”
Of the 59 known bear mortalities in the GYE in 2017, 42 were human-caused. The majority of human-related deaths are at the hands of wildlife officials who euthanize bears after they kill livestock or pose a threat to property or people. Scientists with the IGBST, which consists of state, federal and tribal organizations, accounted for those deaths when they took the bears off the ESL.
“The Fish and Wildlife service experts found that that much of the prospective hunting would be compensatory to existing management removals, rather than additive,” added Heusinkveld. “This is what happens when a species population level rises above its habitat’s carrying capacity. The bears have greatly extended their range and are commonly coming into conflict with people and livestock.”
Despite the science, the planned hunts drew widespread condemnation from non-hunters and anti-hunters alike. At least two people who have no plans to hunt successfully drew tags in Wyoming. Jackson, Wyoming wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen, who has used his recognition to criticize the hunt, was one of nearly 7,000 resident and non-resident applicants. He drew tag Number 8 and plans on pursuing bears with a camera if the hunt goes forward. Noted anthropologist Jane Goodall has also been an outspoken critic of the hunt.
No matter what Christensen ultimately rules, attorneys on both sides of the case expect it to be appealed to the next level, the 9th Circuit Court. As of now, said Heusinkveld, everyone is in a holding pattern until Christensen addresses the case again within the next two weeks.
“Cases involving the Endangered Species Act don’t often move very quickly. That is just part of the process,” said Heusinkveld. “Look at wolves in the western Great Lakes region. They have been deemed fully recovered for 11 years now and the Fish and Wildlife Service continue to attempt to delist them, but the legal battles continue. We hope the grizzly bear case doesn’t drag on for that long. The science is very clear. They are neither threatened nor endangered, based on the ESA listing requirements, and the hunts do not increase the risk of the bears being re-listed.”