U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewing Yellowstone grizzly delisting

Federal officials are reviewing the lifting of Endangered Species Act protections from the Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly bears in the wake of a recent court decision that preserved protections for gray wolves in the Great Lakes region.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it’s seeking public comment on how a federal court ruling that prevented the delisting of the western Great Lakes wolves as a subset of the gray wolf population should impact the agency’s decision to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies as a distinct subset of that species.

In the case of the Great Lakes wolves, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled that USFWS couldn’t delist that subset of the gray wolf population without considering the impact the move would have on wolf recovery elsewhere in the country. The same issue has been raised in the lawsuits challenging the delisting of the Yellowstone bears.

Steve Segin, a spokesman for the USFWS, said the grizzly bear delisting rule still stands, but that USFWS wants input on how the Great Lakes wolves case should impact the delisting.

“This whole thing is new and we issued our final rule before we had this court’s opinion,” Segin said.

A USFWS press release said the agency will address the comments and release its conclusions before March 31.

Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the move is “unprecedented and very unusual,” and that it seems like an attempt to cover up legal problems in the rule.

“It seems like a pretty lame attempt to just paper over some fatal flaws that they recognize they have in this rule,” she said.

The Yellowstone grizzly bears were first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, when the population included fewer than 150 bears. The most recent estimate from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team puts the number at just above 700, though some say the number could be nearer to 1,000.

State and federal wildlife officials feel the bears have recovered, and in June, the Department of the Interior moved to lift the protections. The move shifted more management responsibility to the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and it opened the door for potential bear hunts.

USFWS considers the Yellowstone bears to be a “distinct population segment,” a term that allows the agency to treat different subsets of a species differently. In the case of the grizzly bear, while protections have been removed from the Yellowstone population, they remain for bears in the seven other recovery areas — including near Glacier National Park.

USFWS used the same justification in its 2011 attempt to delist the Western Great Lakes gray wolf. The Humane Society sued over the decision. A federal district court ruled in the Humane Society’s favor in 2014. The federal government appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., which upheld the lower court’s ruling in August.

In its opinion, the appeals court wrote that USFWS failed to consider the effect delisting “would have on the legal status of the remaining wolves in the already-listed species.”

Santarsiere said the same issue is at play with the Yellowstone bears, and that the wolf decision means the agency can’t delist the Yellowstone bears without considering the impact to bear recovery in other parts of the country. She added that it’s especially critical because of the consequences delisting may have for the eventual connection between the Yellowstone bears and other populations.

“It’s a completely isolated population,” she said. “They’re not connected to other bear populations in the lower 48 and that makes them genetically pretty vulnerable.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a plaintiff in one of the five lawsuits challenging the delisting of the Yellowstone grizzlies. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Missoula issued an order combining the five cases.


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