Circuit Court Hears Oral Arguments over Yellowstone Grizzly Delisting

Today, in a hearing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and televised over the internet, a coalition of conservation groups, including Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council, and Western Watersheds Project, defended a lower court ruling to re-list the Yellowstone grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act and faced off against state agencies who want the bears stripped of ESA protections, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which accepts the District Court’s rejection of the Yellowstone grizzly’s de-listing but seeks fewer responsibilities before finalizing a new decision.

Conservation groups pointed to the science showing that Yellowstone grizzly bears remain isolated, and are faced by dwindling food supplies as climate change eliminates whitebark pines that provide an autumn crop of pine nuts important for grizzly bears seeking to fatten up before they go into winter-long hibernation.

“The Greater Yellowstone grizzly population remains isolated from other grizzly populations, and the loss of natural food sources puts bears at greater risk of being killed as they wander into close proximity with human settlements in search of food,” said Mike Garrity, Executive Director for Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Until we have robust grizzly populations that are naturally connected with other grizzly populations, the Yellowstone grizzlies remain vulnerable to inbreeding and extinction and need to remain listed under the ESA.”

Conservationists argued that genetic viability remains a threat to the Yellowstone grizzlies in the long term, that states had refused to commit to protecting bears from hunting in the corridors needed to reconnect populations, and that there wasn’t even a firm commitment by the state and federal agencies to translocate bears if natural dispersal failed to alleviate a future genetic crisis.

“What in this record shows that ere will be migration?” asked Judge Hurwitz. “Has there been any migration along that corridor?”

The federal attorney was forced to concede that there is no connectivity between the Yellowstone bear population and the Northern Continental Divide population, and that there was no specific plan even for translocations of bears into Yellowstone if natural connectivity fails to be established in the future.

An attorney from the State of Wyoming argued that the state should be able to appeal the remand of the de-listing rule back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, citing an “incorrect ruling that pre-empts their sovereignty” and ability to manage grizzly bears themselves, without federal Endangered Species Act protections taking precedence.

“The states have sought to maximize the numbers of bears killed by hunters — and in reprisal for livestock-bear conflicts — and have failed to make a good faith effort at assisting, or even allowing, grizzly populations to expand into ecologically suitable habitats and re-connect their populations,” said Erik Molvar, Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project. “The oral arguments we heard today spotlighted a litany of moving the goalposts, limiting conservation efforts, and fundamentally withholding the protections that grizzlies need to achieve a long-term recovery, demonstrating that the states aren’t ready to take over the responsibility for grizzly bear conservation.”

The hearing concluded without a ruling from the bench; a written ruling is expected after an as-yet-undetermined period of deliberation.

Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, (307) 399-7910

Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, (406) 459-5936