By Lew Freedman and Evan Bartel
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CODY — Game and Fish suspended its planned grizzly bear hunting season Friday afternoon in response to a restraining order issued by a federal court judge in Missoula, Mont.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen capped a day of debate and flurry of activity Thursday with his late-afternoon ruling.
“This is unfortunate,” said director Scott Talbott. “Game and Fish has a robust grizzly bear management program with strong regulation protections and population monitoring for grizzly bears.”
Culminating more than four decades of population recovery efforts for the Yellowstone grizzly and its delisting from Endangered Species Act protection last year, Wyoming Game and Fish had scheduled a two-pronged hunt set to start Sept. 1 and Sept. 15. Idaho set up a smaller hunt.
This would have been the first sanctioned grizzly hunt in more than 40 years.
Presiding over a hearing where six lawsuits were consolidated to determine the long-term supervision of the iconic animal, Christensen listened to attorney arguments for four hours and then recessed the proceedings.
He surprised many by immediately announcing he was not going to rule from the bench because that would indicate his mind was already made up.
However, hours later, just after 5 p.m., Christensen issued the restraining order.
“The court is satisfied that a temporary restraining order is warranted,” Christensen wrote. “Here the threat to individual grizzly bears posed by the scheduled hunt is sufficient. Indeed, harm to members of endangered species is irreparable because once a member of an endangered species has been injured, the task of preserving that species becomes all the more difficult.”
After decades of scientific study and field monitoring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service returned management of the Yellowstone grizzly to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho on July 31, 2017.
As part of the approved long-range conservation strategy, hunting was included as a possible management tool based on a formula setting the number of bears that could be hunted.
“It’s frustration after all the work that’s been done,” Park County Commissioner Loren Grosskopf said of the ruling.
Grosskopf has been a member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and helped draft the conservation strategy.
“After years of work, 99 percent of biologists and scientists agree the bear is recovered,” he said. “Wyoming has put $50 million into recovery. I knew this might happen. Secretly, I hoped a judge might say try it for a year.”
Under Wyoming’s plan, no more than 22 bears total between those within the key demographic monitoring area of the population and outside of that zone could be hunted. It has been established there are more than 700 grizzlies in the area, compared to a low of 136 in the 1970s.
Requiring a variety of safeguards to protect against a minimal number of breeding females being taken Game and Fish will allow just one hunter into the field at a time.
U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi issued a statement disagreeing with the judge’s actions.
“Experts and wildlife officials agree that the grizzly bear in the Yellowstone region has been recovered for many years,” Enzi said. “It is unfortunate that activist litigation has once again delayed the process of allowing states to properly manage their own wildlife.”
As a result of Christensen’s decree, Game and Fish made certain to update hunters on the situation.
Thursday was long-expected to be a milestone day in the area’s grizzly saga. Numerous conservation groups objected to Wyoming scheduling a hunt. But others opposed the delisting itself. They claim government authorities used faulty science, failed to take into account changed habitat and feeding sources, and presented a host of other reasons why no hunt should take place and the animal should be re-listed under the ESA.
There were an estimated 30 lawyers present when Christensen called court into session at 9 a.m.
The Sierra Club and Humane Society of the United States are among those against a hunt. The National Rifle Association, Safari Club International and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation favor it.
Interest in the proceedings was so high a second, auxiliary courtroom with a viewing screen was set up for spectators.
Each side was given 60 minutes to present arguments pro and con on the hunt and the issue of re-listing the bear.
Despite innumerable hours of field research, studies and governmental meetings, Nicholas Arivo, representing the Humane Society, said the delisting program did not provide for re-listing if necessary and alleged, “What happened here was not a scientific debate … It was about political expediency.”
Both sides agree grizzlies have expanded their range. The anti-delisting side said the reason is lack of an adequate food supply sending them searching into new territory. The pro-delisting side argued there are simply more bears and that’s why they are spreading out.
The anti-delisting side argued a sub-set of grizzlies cannot be delisted if bears everywhere have not made a comeback. Colby Howell, an attorney for the pro-delisting side, called that viewpoint “a historical relic.”
Alarmed that Christensen did not halt the looming hunt before adjourning, groups such as the Western Watersheds Project and Alliance for the Wild Rockies initiated their own requests for restraining orders in court.
“We’re determined to stop Wyoming and Idaho from killing these magnificent animals while the sub-population is still so imperiled by so many factors,” said Josh Osher, the Montana director of the watersheds project.
Shortly after, Christensen issued the temporary restraining order himself.
Grosskopf said all of the scientific arguments made against delisting have been studied and answered and by issuing this restraining order on the proposed hunt, Christensen is “bowing down” to the conservation groups.
The stay, Grosskopf said, indicates the judge’s overall thinking.
Grosskopf said “if a judge put them (the Yellowstone grizzly bear) back on the list (ESA) it would be “because someone doesn’t like it,” not for sound reasons.
“It’s extremely disappointing after all this work.”
Talbott, too, raised the issue of the possibility grizzlies will regain EPA protection.
“We will now await further information about whether the bears will remain under state management, or if they go back to federal management,” Talbott said.