Editorial:

Judge’s ruling on grizzlies a step backward

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It’s possible that a Montana judge correctly interpreted the law and past court decisions when he reversed federal wildlife managers and restored Endangered Species Act protections for the region’s grizzly bears last week. But it seems clear to us that U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen missed the mark when it comes to the facts on the ground.

Since the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzlies were put under Endangered Species Act protections in 1975, the population has made a remarkable recovery. The number of bears has risen from as few as 136 animals to perhaps more than 1,000 today.

For evidence of the grizzly’s recovery, you don’t have to look far. In fact, residents in Wapiti, the South Fork, Clark, the Heart Mountain area and, more recently, in the city of Cody sometimes have only to look out their living room windows to see bears.

And yet, environmental groups and some Native American tribes are convinced that we still need more bears, suing to keep our area’s grizzlies as a threatened species. In the wake of Christensen’s decision — which blocked planned hunts in Wyoming and Idaho — an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity went as far as to say the Yellowstone area population is “nowhere near recovery.”

We’d ask exactly where we’re supposed to find room for more grizzlies. As Luke Ellsbury, a large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish in Cody, remarked last year, “We’ve already got bears everywhere.”

Presumably, the numbers of bears will continue to go up and up while the grizzly remains listed — and so will the number of conflicts between people and the dangerous predators.

Judge Christensen emphasized that his ruling was based on the law and not on the significant implications that it would have. That’s what a judge is supposed to do, but here on the rim of bear country, it’s hard to separate the two.

One of Judge Christensen’s primary findings was that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider how removing protections for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would affect bears in other parts of the lower 48 states. The judge also found fault with the way that federal and state wildlife managers might choose to estimate the number of bears in the future, and said they didn’t go far enough in addressing possible future problems with genetic diversity among the population.

We understand some of Christensen’s concerns, but they’re mostly hypothetical and based on process. We think the actual facts of the case — specifically, that the grizzly bear has recovered in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — should have carried the day.

Certainly, the judge’s decision was constrained by the Endangered Species Act, which we believe is in need of some reform.

We fear that, if something isn’t done, frustration will boil over with species seemingly remaining under federal protections forever. Keep in mind that this is the second time a judge has overturned an attempt to delist the Yellowstone area’s grizzlies — the last reversal coming in 2007. The federal government spent parts of the last decade working to address those concerns (about how fewer whitebark pine nuts might impacts species), only to be hit with the new list of issues this year.

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., introduced a bill in Congress last week that would affirm the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist and permanently block any courts from reviewing the decision.

While that approach certainly is appealing, it may go a little too far. Despite the setbacks delivered by judges like Christensen, we continue to believe that judicial review has a place in our republic.

A preferable approach was recently suggested by David Wilms, a policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead. In an interview with the Casper Star-Tribune, Wilms said the Endangered Species Act could be modified to delay judicial review until the end of a species’ post-delisting period, which often lasts at least five years.

Some environmental groups, apparently trying to pander to their bases, have tried to frame the issue of endangered species as a partisan one.

In a recent op-ed published in the Idaho State Journal, the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Mark Garrity, praised Christensen’s ruling that the lower 48 states’ grizzly bears need to be considered as a whole.

“They were listed as one population and needed to be recovered as one population. But last year, the Trump administration decided to ‘balkanize’ the bears into ‘distinct populations’ and took Yellowstone-area grizzlies off the threatened species list with the support of Republicans in Congress,” Garrity wrote.

His rhetoric will probably sound great in the alliance’s next email plea for donations, but his premise is completely misleading.

It was actually President Barack Obama’s administration that began the recent delisting attempt for the Greater Yellowstone area’s bears in March 2016. (In case anyone forgot, we would note that Obama was a Democrat.)

“The best available scientific and commercial data indicate that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) population of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) has recovered and no longer meets the definition of an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act,” Fish and Wildlife officials wrote at that time.

In short, three consecutive administrations — those of presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump — have worked to delist the grizzly bear for more than a decade. It was apparently clear to three very different presidents and administrations in Washington, D.C., that the region’s grizzly population has recovered.

It’s a shame that a judge in Missoula, Montana, didn’t see it, too.

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