WYOMING – A handful of wildlife conservation coalitions are poised to file lawsuits challenging the upcoming July 31 delisting of about 700 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the final delisting rule on June 22 to remove federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections and allow Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to manage the species’ “distinct population segment” (DPS) individually and under a tri-state agreement.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is prepared to undertake the state’s management of grizzlies, as are Montana and Idaho’s state wildlife agencies.
The final rule, officially published in the Federal Register on June 30, sets the effective delisting date at July 30.
Also on June 30, the Western Environmental Law Center for WildEarth Guardians provided its 60-day notice of intent (NOI) to sue the FWS and Department of the Interior for violations of the ESA.
“We would, however, welcome the opportunity to meet and confer with the (FWS) to discuss the issues raised in this notice letter in an attempt to avoid litigation,” it says. “Please let me know at your earliest convenience if you would be amenable to such a meeting.”
The Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals also filed a NOI, which says, “The final rule removes protections necessary for the continued survival of this iconic and imperiled species in the continental United States, failing to comply with the conservation mandate of the ESA.”
Another NOI filed by Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council calls GYE grizzly delisting “arbitrary and capricious.”
“Here, the (FWS) failed to properly define and adequately consider, quantify, and evaluate” if the grizzly’s lost historic range in the U.S. and DPS “amounts to a significant portion of its range and, if so, what the threats are to grizzlies in this area.”
A fourth NOI was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association.
“The (FWS) incorrectly and misleadingly asserts that the (GYE) population of grizzly bears is not threatened by a recent shift to a meat-centered diet, which puts bears and cubs at risk of human conflict and predation by other bears. The (FWS) also erroneously argues that application of the final rule’s mortality thresholds will arrest any decline in the grizzly population due to this dietary shift, despite the fact that the best available science shows that application of the thresholds themselves has an unacceptably high likelihood of resulting in a substantial decline in the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population within 10 years.
In the meantime, the three GYE states have coordinated efforts with the Tri-State Memorandum of agreement (MOA) to manage grizzlies regarding how to divide “discretionary mortality” in each state.
FWS proposed the “recovery criterion for a conservative total of at least 500 GYE bears,” according to the MOA. FWS also set a goal of at least 48 females with cubs in the “demographic monitoring area.”
The number of 500 bears includes a “buffer” built onto a minimum of 400 grizzlies needed to offset potential inbreeding or genetic drift.
The FWS rule provides an in-depth historical background of the GYE grizzly, its range and the GYE grizzlies’ unique habitat.
“In the 2007 final rule, we concluded that the GYE was a unique ecological setting because GYE grizzly bears were more carnivorous than in other ecosystems where the taxon occurs and they still used whitebark pine seeds extensively while other populations no longer did. New research shows that meat constitutes approximately the same percentage of annual grizzly bear diets in the NCDE (38 and 56 percent for females and males, respectively) and the GYE (44 percent of all GYE grizzly bears). We also now have information suggesting that whitebark pine has been reduced in the GYE since 2002 and, therefore, may not be as major of a food source as previously concluded. Although consumption of meat and whitebark pine by GYE grizzly bears individually may not be exceptional, we believe that the combination of food sources in the GYE grizzly bear, including army cutworm moths, whitebark pine, cutthroat trout, and ungulates (bison, elk, moose and deer) comprises a unique ecological setting because we are unaware of any other population of Ursus arctos horribilis that utilizes this combination.”
It continues: “Although grizzly bears in other ecosystems consume meat in similar quantities as the GYE, grizzly bears in the GYE are unique in their consumption of bison and in their interactions with wolves to obtain carcasses.
“In addition, GYE grizzly bears have been documented to consume unique food items such as geothermal soil and false-truffles. We are not aware of other grizzly bear populations that consume these food items. GYE grizzly bears opportunistically feed on more than 260 species of food to supplement their diets, which is more than other populations of grizzly bears of which we are aware.
“This unique combination of food sources utilized by grizzly bears in the GYE is significant because of the potential conservation value provided by variation in food availability and use by grizzly bears in light of potential environmental changes.”
The rule also responds to many different types of comments –– from hunting to human-caused mortality to forest fires – raised by peers and the public in the FWS’ attempts to delist the GYE grizzlies.
In response to hunting questions, Wyoming Game and Fish officials say they will take a measured approach.
The FWS rule refers to the process to set each state’s hunting regulations: “As to the comment that hunting regulations are not final, we would not expect all state hunting regulations to be final because no decisions have been made to authorize hunting seasons in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming. Furthermore, the process set forth in the Tri-State MOA to establish discretionary mortality has not been undertaken yet because GYE grizzly bears have been protected by the Act.
“The allocation of discretionary mortality set forth in the Tri-State MOA must be followed before any state can identify a bear quota subject to hunting because it identifies how many bears, if any, exceed population objectives. Only after that process is completed can states set hunting seasons, establish hunt unit quotas for each unit, assess and define hunter eligibility requirements, set licensing requirements and fees and other limitations specific to administering annual hunting seasons.”
To read the FWS final delisting rule for GYE grizzlies in the June 30, 2017, Federal Register, go to https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/06/30/2017-13160/.