WYOMING – Wyoming’s first grizzly bear hunt in more than 40 years was suspended before the first hunters were scheduled to hit the wilderness last weekend.
On Thursday, Aug. 30, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen of Montana issued a temporary restraining order on the grizzly hunts in Wyoming and Idaho in response to a series of lawsuits filed against the 2017 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pull the bruin off the Endangered Species List.
Wildlife advocates and Native American plaintiffs in the lawsuits asked Christensen to issue a temporary restraining order on the hunts after the judge declined to immediately offer a final ruling on the case. The restraining order is in force for the next 14 days.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department suspended the state’s grizzly hunt on Friday in response to the ruling, a press release stated. G&F Spokesperson Renny McKay told the Sublette Examiner that the agency is in the process of notifying people who drew tags for the bear hunt. McKay emphasized that the hunt was not canceled, but only suspended, for two weeks. As a result, the G&F is not refunding license fees at this time.
“This is unfortunate,” G&F Director Scott Talbott said of the court’s decision in a press release. “Game and Fish has a robust grizzly bear management program with strong regulatory protections and population monitoring. We believe in state-led management of wildlife involving the public in decisions like the creation and implementation of a conservative hunting opportunity for those who want that experience.”
Environmental groups and Native American plaintiffs welcomed Christensen’s decision. “We are excited that the judge granted our temporary restraining order to keep grizzlies safe for the next 14 days,” Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Sublette Examiner. “We hope for a positive ruling from the judge based on the merits of our case and that the grizzly will be placed back on the Endangered Species List.”
“I am very, very happy that the court ruled in favor of the restraining order to eliminate the first day of hunting,” Dr. David Bearshield, a plaintiff and chairman of Native American advocacy group Guardians of our Ancestor’s Legacy, said. “The ruling gives us time to figure out our next move in the court case and provides assurance that the courts are looking at the spirituality of Native Americans.”
Leading politicians in Wyoming condemned Christensen’s ruling, however.
“I’m disappointed by this temporary restraining order,” Gov. Matt Mead said in a press release, “Grizzly bear recovery should be viewed as a conservation success story.”
U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso also issued statements denouncing the decision. “It is unfortunate that activist legislation has once again delayed the process of allowing states to properly manage their own wildlife,” Enzi stated. “After reviewing the evidence, I hope the judge recognizes the recovered status of the bears and allows Wyoming to continue management of the species.”
“The state of Wyoming should be able to move forward with management of the bear,” Barrasso said in his statement. “This judge’s decision demonstrates exactly why the Endangered Species Act must be modernized.”
Barrasso currently serves as the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and is involved in efforts to reform the ESA.
The ESA was passed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973 to protect plants and animals threatened with extinction. After years of population decline, there were only 136 grizzly bears living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the early 1970s. The bear was designated a threatened species and protected under the ESA until 2005 when the Bush administration urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist, or remove, the GYE grizzly from the Endangered Species List.
Environmental groups filed a series of lawsuits against the delisting, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in their favor in 2009. In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service once again started the process to remove the bear from the ESA and issued the final rule to delist the GYE grizzly in the summer of 2017.
The FWS maintains that the GYE population has recovered to a stable population of around 700. FWS also points out that grizzly habitat in Yellowstone has doubled since the 1970s and now covers an area the size of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The FWS claims that the decision to delist the bruin was based on peer-reviewed science from educational and research institutions, individual experts and state and federal agencies.
Once the grizzly was delisted, G&F management transferred from the federal government to the states. The G&F approved the hunt for up to 24 bears this fall as part of the state’s new grizzly management plan. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission adopted a hunt of one bear. Montana opted out of hosting a hunt.
Wildlife advocates and Native Americans filed six lawsuits against the decision to delist the bear in 2017. Environmental groups contend that the GYE grizzly has not fully recovered, and argue that the science used behind the action was inadequate. Groups like the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity allege that several important food sources for the bear have declined. They also contend that the grizzly bear has only recovered in 5 percent of its former habitat across the United States, and exist in isolated populations.
Native American tribes and organizations focused their lawsuits on issues of religious freedom and tribal sovereignty. Many plaintiffs, like the Northern Arapaho, also insist that tribes in the region were not properly consulted by federal and state agencies in the decision-making process.
Christensen did not say when he would announce his decision, but said it would be “soon.”