BILLINGS – Federal officials said Thursday that a recent court ruling returning Yellowstone grizzly bears to the threatened species list inadvertently puts the animals at greater risk.
In September, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that about 600 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park remained in danger of extinction, despite a two-decade recovery effort.
Molloy cited dwindling food supplies due to climate change, increased shootings and problems with federal and state conservation plans meant to shield bears from future decline.
Molloy’s ruling effectively voided the conservation plans, which had restricted road construction, livestock grazing and development in areas where bears live. Without those restrictions, bears will face new dangers, the government said.
On Monday, the Fish and Wildlife Service submitted court filings asking Molloy to reverse his September ruling and keep bears off the threatened list.
An attorney for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the plaintiffs in the case, said the agency’s arguments were “absurd.”
“This is from the agency that’s supposed to be the guardian of endangered species,” said the attorney, Doug Honnold. “It’s really a shocking submission.”
Restrictions on roads, grazing and development were adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and other state and federal land management agencies after a 2007 decision to remove the bears from the threatened list.
The coordinator of the federal grizzly recovery program, Chris Servheen, said in an affidavit that those restrictions were key to preserving almost 750,000 acres of Forest Service land for bears.
“The direct result of the court decision … will be increased loss of secure habitat and increased mortality risk and displacement of grizzly bears on the 746,240 acres,” Servheen said.
In an interview Thursday, Servheen declined to characterize the degree of risk and said it was impossible to quantify.
Honnold said that even without the conservation plans, the Endangered Species Act gives the Fish and Wildlife Service sufficient power to make sure bears are protected if they are listed as threatened.
But wildlife officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have warned of declining enthusiasm for bear conservation if the animals remain on the threatened species list much longer.
Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said following Molloy’s September ruling that the concern in his state was over too many bears, not too few.
Seth Wiley, a Fish and Wildife Service biologist with the agency’s regional office in Denver, said there was no decision yet on whether to appeal Molloy’s September ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
While the latest motion from the agency is pending, Wiley said the 60-day deadline to file an appeal will be suspended.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.