Judge halts grizzly hunts

Wyoming officials disappointed with decision

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Thirty-six hours before hunters were to set their sights on grizzlies in Idaho and Wyoming, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order that delayed trophy hunts of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears for 14 days.

U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen heard four hours of arguments Thursday morning in Missoula, Montana, before issuing a preliminary injunction that evening. Christensen’s order will at least delay the states from going forward with the first grizzly hunt in the lower 48 states in more than 40 years. The last grizzly hunt in Wyoming was in 1974.

Six separate lawsuits attempting to overturn the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2017 decision to delist the species were consolidated into one hearing. The plaintiffs were the Crow Indian Tribe, Humane Society of the United States, WildEarth Guardians, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Chicago attorney Robert Aland.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials spent Thursday night notifying hunters that the hunt was being delayed.

Scott Talbott, director of the Game and Fish, called the ruling “unfortunate.”

“Game and Fish has a robust grizzly bear management program with strong regulations, protections and population monitoring for grizzly bears. We believe in state-led management of wildlife and involving the public in decisions like the creation and implementation of a conservative hunting opportunity for those who want that experience,” Talbott said. He said the department will now wait to see whether the bears will remain under state management or go back to federal management.

The Wyoming hunt had been scheduled in two parts. The hunt outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears’ core habitat, known as the demographic monitoring area (DMA), was set to begin Saturday. Powell residents had two of the 12 available licenses for the area. A more limited hunt inside the DMA was set to start Sept. 15; hunters inside the DMA had yet to receive licenses as they will only be allowed to hunt one at a time to protect the number of female grizzlies taken.

To get the injunction, the plaintiffs had to show that irreperable harm was likely and that they were likely to prevail in the case.

Judge Christensen said the “threat of death to individual grizzly bears posed by the scheduled hunt” met the threshold of irreparable harm. He added that the enivronmental groups and tribes had submitted “substantial documentation of potential harm to the species ... and to the organizations’ members” who enjoy the bears.

The judge noted past court decisions, which say it shouldn’t be too hard for people to obtain an injunction, given that the Endangered Species Act was created to protect endangered and threatened species. Christensen cited a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision finding that, in cases involving the Endangered Species Act, judges should “presume that remedies at law are inadequate, that the balance of interests weighs in favor of protecting endangered species, and that the public interest would not be disserved by an injunction.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said stopping the hunts was their immediate goal, but they ultimately hope Judge Christensen overturns Fish and Wildlife’s decision to delist the grizzly bears.

“As we explained to the judge [Thursday], the removal of protections for Yellowstone’s iconic grizzlies was illegal. The bears should not be killed in a hunting season made possible by an illegal government decision,” said Timothy Preso, an Earthjustice attorney representing some of the groups.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead wasn’t happy with the injunction, calling himself “disappointed.”

“Grizzly bear recovery should be viewed as a conservation success story. Due to Wyoming’s investment of approximately $50 million for recovery and management, grizzly bears have exceeded every scientifically established recovery criteria in the GYE since 2003,” Mead said in a Friday news release. “Numbers have risen from as few as 136 bears when they were listed in 1975, to more than 700 today.”

Wyoming and Idaho decided to hold grizzly hunts this year, while Montana decided to not have a hunt this year.

Jackson wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen drew a chance to hunt inside the DMA in the lottery and had planned to protest the hunts by taking only a camera on his allotted hunting period. Mangelsen said the money spent by the Game and Fish is a drop in the bucket compared to the tourism dollars coming in to see the bears.

“[Grizzlies] just got off the list last year and we’re already hunting them this year,” he said. “Tourists want to see bears and this makes Wyoming look backward.”

After Thursday’s hearing, the plaintiffs filed more than 100 pages of documents in support of their “emergency” request for an injunction. That included a declaration from David Mattson, a retired U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist. He, along with 72 other scientists, had sent a letter to Mead in April suggesting a hunt would cause irreparable harm.

“These hunts will likely result in irreparable harm to the Greater Yellowstone population and that, even if federal ESA protections are eventually restored after the hunt concludes, the allowed mortality will have likely caused irreversible damage. I am not alone in this conclusion,” Mattson wrote.

In ruling that the plaintiffs had raised “serious questions” about the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to delist the species, Christensen cited a 2017 case, Humane Society of the United States v. Zinke. In that case, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Fish and Wildlife violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the ESA when it isolated and delisted a distinct population segment of gray wolves without considering the legal and functional impact on the remainder of the species.

In citing the case, it may signal a willingness on Christensen’s behalf to consider relisting the species, which was declared recovered in the isolated area, but not in its traditional range.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., took the opportunity to lobby for his recent Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2018 discussion draft, which he released in July. The draft emphasizes elevating the role of states and increasing transparency in the implementation of the ESA, said a release Friday morning from Barrasso.

“The state of Wyoming should be able to move forward with management of the bear. This judge’s decision demonstrates exactly why the Endangered Species Act must be modernized,” Barrasso said.

The discussion draft has been attacked by environmental groups as part of a long string of attacks on the ESA, designed to give industry greater access to wildlife habitat for activites that include mineral extraction.

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