Judge restores federal protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears

September 25, 2018, 9:54 a.m.
A grizzly bear sow leads her cubs through the snow.
Photo: Chase Dekker/Shutterstock

On Sept. 24, a federal judge restored federal legal protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park and blocked scheduled hunts. U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen ruled that the decision to remove them from the Endangered Species List and allow for hunts increased the chances the Yellowstone grizzly bears would become extinct due to inbreding and lack of genetic diversity, reports USA Today.

"By refusing to analyze the legal and functional impact of delisting on other continental grizzly populations, the service entirely failed to consider an issue of extreme importance," Christensen wrote in his ruling. "Moreover, the service's analysis of the threats faced by the Greater Yellowstone grizzly segment was arbitrary and capricious."

In April 2018, the U.S. Interior Department announced it would not restore federal protections for grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park, part of a long-running saga over the bears' legal status. (Federal protections had previously been removed in 2017.)

A month later, the Wyoming Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to allow hunting of grizzly bears in the state for the first time since 1974. The ruling was scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1, allowing hunters to kill as many as 22 bears during hunting season. That was also the planned start date for hunts in Idaho, where grizzly bears haven't been legally hunted since 1946.

Conservationists and tribal groups had sued the U.S. government over plans to remove federal protections for grizzlies, and they successfully demonstrated that new hunting could cause "irreparable harm" to this grizzly population, according to U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen. "The threat of death to individual grizzly bears posed by the scheduled hunt is sufficient" to warrant a delay, Christensen wrote.

Why were they removed from the Endangered Species List?

Yellowstone's grizzly bears were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2017. The announcement by the U.S. Department of Interior to delist the bears was met with mixed responses. Is this a conservation success story, or a decision that will lead to the bears' decline?

The National Park Service (NPS) notes the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has grown from 136 in 1975, when the grizzly was listed as a threatened species, to 700 individuals today.

"Scientists think the Yellowstone area population is recovered and may have reached its capacity for resident grizzlies," according to the NPS.

Conservationists worried that delisting would lead to the creature's decline, however. They also point out that climate change-induced fluctuations in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem means the future of these bears is uncertain, and maintaining federal protections will be of critical importance in the coming years as available food sources and suitable habitat shift.

"Grizzly bears are the slowest-reproducing mammal on the planet, and a population decline can take decades to reverse," Derek Goldman of the Endangered Species Coalition writes in a statement emailed to NPR.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in June 2017.

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