In a stunning victory for wildlife conservationists and indigenous tribes – and for bears – a US court ruled on Wednesday that grizzly bears living in the vast Yellowstone ecosystem will remain federally protected and not be subjected to sport hunting.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service had sought to strip Yellowstone-area grizzlies of safeguards conferred by the Endangered Species Act. This would have allowed the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to permit a limited number of people to obtain hunting licenses, though sport hunting would have remained prohibited within Yellowstone itself.

“We applaud the decision of the 9th circuit court – a triumph of science over politics – in ensuring that Yellowstone grizzly bears are allowed to truly recover and thrive,” said Sarah McMillan, conservation director for WildEarth Guardians.

WildEarth Guardians was among eight environmental groups, citizens and tribal entities that sued to have the highest level of species protection restored to grizzlies, on the basis that the bears’ recovery had not been assured.

The Greater Yellowstone population of bears is not only globally renowned and the focus of a robust nature-tourism industry, but synonymous with the wild character of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park.

The number of bears in the region has rebounded from about 140 in the 1970s to more than 700 today, and grizzlies have expanded their range to places where they haven’t been in 100 years. Their comeback is considered one of the greatest successes in conservation history.

Both the states and sportsmen’s groups contend that hunting is therefore on the table. “The grizzly population has more than recovered,” says Tex Janecek, outgoing president of the Montana state chapter of Safari Club International. “We should be having a hunting season and the states should be regulating it. Bears are ranging far beyond the greater Yellowstone region and they are getting in trouble with livestock and putting people at risk. Hunting can be an effective tool.”

Tim Preso of the environmental law firm EarthJustice, who argued the case on behalf of conservation groups and Native American clients, said the federal government and states have been managing grizzlies effectively for more than four decades without needing to enlist hunters to remove bears that get into conflict with people.

Currently there are about 2,000 grizzlies in the lower 48, a mere fraction of the 50,000 that historically existed south of Canada. They exist today in five separate “island” populations, all disconnected from each other.

Conservationists argue that true recovery means linking bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem to bear inhabiting the so-called northern continental divide ecosystem, along the US border with Canada.

The fate of the grizzly population has hung in the balance for several years. In 2018, a federal judge halted plans by Wyoming to commence its first trophy hunt of grizzlies in 44 years only hours before the first hunters went afield.

This year a half dozen people have been injured by grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area, none fatally, and nearly every instance has involved a hiker or mountain biker surprising a bear.

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