BILLINGS – U.S. officials will not restore federal protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears, despite a court ruling that called into question the government’s rationale for turning grizzly management over to states that are now planning public hunts for the animals, according to an announcement Friday in in the Federal Register.
The disclosure from the Interior Department follows a months-long review of a decision last year to lift protections in place since 1975 for about 700 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park.
That review was launched when a federal appeals court said in a case involving gray wolves in the Great Lakes that the Interior Department needed to give more consideration to how a species’ loss of historical habitat affects its recovery.
Like wolves, grizzly bears in some parts of the U.S. have bounced back from widespread extermination, yet remain absent from most of their historical range.
Interior officials said in Friday’s filing that they disagreed with the ruling in the wolf case. They said Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population has recovered and noted that other populations of the animals living outside the three-state Yellowstone region remain protected as a threatened species.
Wyoming and Idaho have proposed limited public hunts for grizzlies this fall. Hunters would be allowed to kill as many as ten male bears and two females in Wyoming and one male and no females in Idaho.
Final decisions on the hunts are pending. Montana officials decided against a hunt this year.
Legal hunting of Yellowstone-area grizzlies last occurred in the 1970s.
Conservation groups and Native American Indian tribes have challenged the lifting of protections in federal court. They argue that killing grizzly bears would diminish the chances of Yellowstone’s bears re-populating other areas where grizzlies once roamed.
Andrea Santarsiere with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in that case, said Friday’s announcement reflects a belated attempt by federal officials to justify last year’s decision.
“They still occupy less than 5 percent of their historical range. That’s just not recovery,” she said.
Pro-hunting groups including the Safari Club intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service.
Safari Club attorney Doug Burdin said the agency’s decision was appropriate and that there were significant distinctions between the government’s distinctions between the wolves and the bears.
Chief among those, he said, was the fact that grizzly bears outside Yellowstone will remain protected in the Lower 48 U.S states while the Great Lakes gray wolves represented the last significant population of that species still under federal protection.
An estimated 50,000 Grizzlies once roamed much of North America. Most were killed off by hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries.