HELENA — Wildlife advocates hope to convince a judge Thursday that grizzly bears living in the Yellowstone National Park area face too many threats to their survival to add trophy hunting to the mix.
Over two dozen conservation groups, Native American tribes and individuals will argue in a Montana courtroom that approximately 700 Yellowstone grizzlies should continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act because of conflicts with humans, changing food sources and a host of other obstacles.
Wyoming and Idaho have set Saturday as the opening day for the first grizzly hunting season in the Lower 48 states since 1974. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said he will rule by then on whether to allow the hunts to proceed.
An appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is likely by whoever is on the losing side.
The advocacy groups claim the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last year that Yellowstone grizzlies are no longer a threatened species was based on faulty science. They also say they don’t trust the three states that have taken over bear management, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, will ensure the bears’ survival.
“The way the Endangered Species Act works is you err or the side of caution, you don’t err on the side of removing protections and hope it all works out,” said Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice representing the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
Justice Department lawyers representing the Fish and Wildlife Service reject the plaintiffs’ claims and say the Yellowstone grizzlies are one of the most-studied and best-managed bear species in the world.
Officials from the three states say they are collaborating to adjust hunting quotas each year based on total grizzly deaths and that will ensure the bear population isn’t imperiled.
“The way this grizzly bear plan was set up is to look closely at population and mortality across the three states where the grizzly bear lives,” said Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman Renny MacKay. “We do a very conservative population estimate and we do a more liberal mortality estimate.”
The population of grizzlies living in Yellowstone was classified as a threatened species in 1975, when its number had fallen to 136. The Fish and Wildlife Service initially declared a successful recovery for the Yellowstone population in 2007, but a federal judge ordered protections to remain in place while wildlife officials studied whether the decline of a major food source, whitebark pine seeds, could threaten the bears’ survival.
In 2017, the federal agency concluded that it had addressed all threats, and ruled that the grizzlies were no longer a threatened species needing restrictive federal protections.
That prompted six lawsuits challenging the agency’s decision. Those lawsuits have been consolidated into one case that Christensen is hearing on Thursday.
Idaho’s hunting quota is one bear. Wyoming’s hunt is in two phases: Sept. 1 opens the season in an outlying area with a quota of 12 bears, and Sept. 15 starts the season in prime grizzly habitat near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. One female or nine males can be killed in those areas.
Wildlife officials in those states say they’re ready for opening day, which would be Wyoming’s first grizzly hunt since 1974 and Idaho’s first since 1946. Twelve hunters in Wyoming and one in Idaho have been issued licenses out of the thousands who applied.
“One thing we told them is that the hunt may not happen or it could be affected in some way,” MacKay said.
Montana officials decided not to hold a hunt this year. Bear hunting is not allowed in Yellowstone or Grand Teton.
The threatened species classification applies to all bears living in the Lower 48 states outside of the Yellowstone population. It doesn’t apply to Alaska, where bear hunts are held each spring and fall and the population numbers about 30,000.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has been moving toward lifting federal protections for another group of approximately 1,000 bears living in Montana’s Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but first wants to see how Christensen decides the Yellowstone case.