Alliance for the Wild Rockies Scores Court Win for Grizzly Bears

Of all remaining “unoccupied” grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48 States, the enormous Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness has the best potential for grizzly bear recovery. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies is thrilled and grateful to announce that a federal court in Montana recently ruled in our favor and has forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take action to restore grizzlies to this area after 22 long years of stalling.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Record of Decision in 2000 that committed the agency to establish a Bitterroot Grizzly Recovery Area, form a committee to recommend land use management standards for the bears, implement an information campaign to prepare the public for the presence of grizzly bears in the area, and release a minimum of 25 grizzly bears into the Recovery Area over a period of five years as an “experimental non-essential population.” 

But the Fish and Wildlife Service never implemented this decision and, in fact, violated federal law by effectively deciding in 2001 to adopt a “no action” alternative instead. Two decades passed and not only did the Service not implement recovery actions, the agency actually trapped and removed grizzlies that were naturally repopulating the area. 

The Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem is one of the largest contiguous blocks of federal land remaining in the lower 48 United States. The core of the ecosystem – which was historically home to thousands of grizzly bears – contains two wilderness areas that comprise the largest block of wilderness habitat in the Rocky Mountains south of Canada.

This vast area is essential for successfully recovering grizzlies and eventually removing them from the Endangered Species List because it is the vital connecting corridor between the Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk, Northern Continental Divide and Yellowstone grizzly populations. Connecting those populations provides the genetic interchange necessary to stave off inbreeding and ensure the long-term survival and recovery of the bears.

A den with grizzly DNA was documented in the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem, and numerous grizzlies have been spotted there as well, which means grizzlies are naturally repopulating the area. Given the non-action by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alliance filed suit to force the federal government to facilitate the recovery of the bears as required under the Endangered Species Act instead of preventing recovery by trapping them and returning them to where they came from. 

Thanks to the court victory, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now mandated to produce a timeline by April 15 for rapid completion of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that takes natural repopulation into consideration. Should the Service fail to do so, the Court said it will impose a timeline on the agency. 

The best available science says to have secure grizzly habitat, it’s necessary to implement habitat protection standards such as road restrictions because most grizzlies are killed near roads by poachers and grizzly bears have learned to avoid roads, even closed roads. 

Since the 1990s the Alliance has supported the Conservation Biology Alternative, which supports grizzlies returning on their own to the Bitterroot ecosystem under full protection of the Endangered Species Act and implementing science-based habitat protection standards to ensure the recovery of grizzly bears in the Northern Rocky Mountains.

The Alliance believes going forward with a transparent, public process – including public review and comment — will finally lead to meaningful federal action. We sincerely thank all those who continue to support the Alliance’s efforts to hold federal agencies to the language of the law and to achieve this essential victory that provides our best chance at full recovery of grizzly bears with one connected  population in the lower 48 states. 

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.