Feds, Wyo. split over Hageman's bill to delist grizzlies
JACKSON – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opposes Wyoming congresswoman Harriet Hageman’s legislative push to remove Endangered Species Act protections from Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears.
But the Wyoming Game and Fish Department backs delisting “by whatever means is necessary.”
Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told Hageman, a first-term Republican, and other members of the United States House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries as much Thursday morning.
He described Yellowstone area grizzlies’ current status as an Endangered Species Act success story.
“The best way to celebrate this success is to delist and return management to the states and the tribes, where it belongs, and to do so by whatever means is necessary,” Nesvik said.
In 2021, biologists used a new method of counting bears to estimate that there are just shy of 1,100 grizzlies and 84 unique females in the area within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where bears are monitored. That’s well above a 500-animal and 48-female threshold for recovery that federal officials established in 2016. In a 2021 report, federal officials said that “recovery criterion” had been met, as well as other criteria.
“The bill you are considering today would certainly achieve the conservation outcome we feel is best for the management of grizzly bears and the people of our state,” Nesvik said.
But Stephen D. Guertin, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy director for program management and policy, said he opposed Hageman’s bill. If passed, H.R. 1245 would see the legislative branch strip grizzlies’ federal protections and exempt the decision from judicial review, an attempt to block environmental groups’ lawsuits.
Republicans feel those sorts of lawsuits have inappropriately tied up delisting efforts in court.
Nesvik appeared to agree.
“The reason [grizzlies remain] listed is not based in biology, but rather in administrative complexities and technicalities espoused by federal judges and court decisions,” he said.
Despite a barrage of questioning from Republican lawmakers, Guertin took no position on whether grizzlies should be delisted. Instead, he encouraged following the bureaucratic process for doing so, a process that requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to follow the “best available scientific and commercial information” and “consider current conditions” when it decides whether to provide or remove species’ federal protections.
He described lawsuits that Republicans are hoping to avoid as a critical part of that process. The courts, he said, “become part of the body of law interpreting the ESA.
“The service adjusts its approach accordingly,” Guertin said.
Guertin also opposed similar bills from other legislators that would remove protections for gray wolves, as well as grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which surrounds Glacier National Park in Montana.
“The service opposes the three bills before us today,” Guertin said. “While each of these bills is unique, they share the common thread of circumventing the scientific processes currently underway.”
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have filed petitions to remove protections for grizzlies around Yellowstone, Glacier, and in the entire lower 48, respectively. Environmental groups, meanwhile, have filed petitions to restore Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone-area wolves. That filing came after a controversial wolf hunt in 2021 that saw hunters kill 23 park wolves, most just north of Yellowstone in Montana. It was approved shortly after Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte took office, and became an international controversy.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the petitions, and recently said that delisting grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems “may be warranted,” kicking off a year-long review of Wyoming and Montana petitions that deal with Yellowstone and Glacier-area grizzlies, respectively.
It did not move forward with reviewing Idaho’s petition to delist grizzlies in the entire lower 48.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has also not yet determined whether to relist Yellowstone-area wolves.
Nesvik and Guertin’s exchange with lawmakers happened in a Washington, D.C., hearing room thousands of miles away from prime grizzly habitat. None of the three bills focused on delisting are likely to become law while Democrats hold the U.S. Senate and White House. All Democrats that spoke during the hearing blasted the bills. But the hearing gave Republicans from Wyoming, Montana and Colorado the chance to spar with Democrats from California, Virginia and Arizona over how best to manage the species.
Overshadowed by another hearing on TikTok, the Gen Z-oriented social media platform at the center of a national showdown over Chinese influence, the hearing on bills that would remove federal protections for wolves and grizzly bears was marked by less bipartisan agreement — and plenty of beltway vitriol.
Meanwhile, environmental groups blasted the measures as “extinction bills.”
“Every piece of evidence shows that grizzlies will not be tolerated in any other part of the state than the Northwestern corner and will be liberally killed elsewhere,” Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said in a press release with seven other environmental groups. “State management of grizzlies is a recipe for setting back all the recovery gains made in the last 50 years.”
In the hearing room, Hageman took the Fish and Wildlife Service’s former grizzly bear recovery coordinator, Chris Servheen, to task. Since retiring, Servheen has publicly pivoted from supporting grizzly delisting to opposing it, concerned about laws passed in state legislatures like Montana. He said that delisting requires “adequate regulatory mechanisms ... to ensure that the delisted populations remain healthy and recovered.”
But, he said, states “lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms” to protect wolves and grizzlies.
That lack, he said, “is due to political interference in the management of wildlife.”
Hageman, however, pushed back, walking Servheen through provisions in an agreement between Wyoming, Idaho and Montana establishing a population goal for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: About 932 animals, a number intentionally set to well exceed the 500-animal federal recovery threshold.
If the population falls below 830 or so animals, hunting, which would all but certainly be approved if grizzlies are delisted, would be stopped until populations increased. If it falls below 600, hunting would stop altogether and bears would be intentionally killed only to address human safety concerns, the plan states.
Hageman asked him about those provisions and similar provisions in Wyoming’s gray wolf management plan, quickly following up with a separate round of questioning as Servheen started to answer.
She argued those provisions were written to “ensure that the numbers don’t go below what is required or what is agreed to in terms of the delisting.”
Servheen said that is, “in effect the case but that is not what my concern is.”
Hageman continued with questioning, to which Servheen responded, “my concern is not with Wyoming.”
That echoes sentiment in environmental circles that Montana and Idaho are the states to watch. The feds specifically said policies in Montana would give them pause while reviewing petitions to remove grizzlies’ federal protections.