BILLINGS — A U.S. appeals court said Wednesday that a federal judge was right to restore protections for about 700 grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region of the Rocky Mountains, after federal officials sought to turn over management of the animals to states that would have allowed them to be hunted.
The ruling means federal wildlife officials will have to do more to justify their proposal to lift protections for bears in portions of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho that include Yellowstone National Park.
However, the appeals court said the judge should not have required a comprehensive review of grizzly bears across their remaining range in the Lower 48 states in order to lift protections for Yellowstone bears.
The ruling from a three-judge panel with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came after proposals to hunt grizzlies in Wyoming and Idaho were blocked in 2018 by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen.
Federal officials had stripped away the animals’ protections under the Endangered Species Act, and hunting was about to begin when Christensen intervened after American Indian tribes and wildlife advocates sued to restore protections.
He said the animals genetic health remained in doubt, and that officials needed to determine if removing protections for bears in and around Yellowstone would harm other populations of the animals. That includes grizzlies in Montana’s Northern Continental Divide area and the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk mountains of Montana, Idaho and Washington state.
The appeals court agreed with government attorneys who said Christensen went too far in requiring a review of those remnant populations. But it sided with wildlife advocates on the genetics issue, saying the government had not done enough to make sure hunting and other pressures don’t reduce the population size to where the bears’ genetic health could be harmed.
Attorneys for the wildlife advocates in the case said they hoped the ruling would prompt federal officials to concentrate more on conserving grizzlies rather than lifting safeguards to their survival.
But supporters of the government’s attempt to remove protections said the elimination of the need for a comprehensive review of remnant bear populations could speed up the process going forward after years of courtroom battles.
Government officials did not challenge other concerns raised by Christensen, including whether sufficient safeguards were in place to keep the bears from sliding toward extinction if states hold hunts.
The Fish and Wildlife Service already is working on that issue, according to court documents. The agency has not wavered from the position that protections are no longer warranted.
Agency representatives declined to offer a response to queries from The Associated Press about the ruling.
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