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Senate committee weighs rollback of grizzly protections
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Senate committee weighs rollback of grizzly protections

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Hunting Grizzlies

A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park. 

Members of the U.S. Senate met for the first time Wednesday to contemplate legislation that, if passed, would grant Wyoming the ability to manage endangered grizzly bear populations within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mike Enzi and in the House by Rep. Liz Cheney in February 2019, the Grizzly Bear State Management Act — which would essentially clear the way to remove Wyoming’s grizzly bear population from protection under the Endangered Species Act and hand over management to the state — has lain dormant in the Senate backlog as Congress has hustled to address more pressing concerns, including infrastructure spending, the federal budget and a national response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After nearly two years of waiting, the bill finally received a hearing Wednesday by Sen. John Barrasso’s Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Barrasso lauded Wyoming’s already active recovery efforts and called for the need to roll back Endangered Species Act protections for the species, citing an increasing number of conflicts between humans and wildlife.

“The Grizzly Bear State Management Act will help address this by giving back to states the authority they need — and have earned — to manage the grizzly bear,” Barrasso said in his opening statement. “It will recognize the full recovery of the grizzly bear and delist it once and for all. It will honor the conservation investment of people throughout Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — and improve the public safety of our communities.”

Delisting the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly population from endangered species protections has been a political boondoggle since the late 1990s, when land managers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming first achieved all of the objectives for the grizzly’s recovery. Since then, the grizzly population in the ecosystem has rebounded dramatically, rising up to a population of anywhere between 1,000 and 1,200.

While the Grizzly Bear State Management Act does not immediately hand over grizzly management plans to Wyoming, it eliminates a key roadblock that has prevented that transition in recent years: the prospect of a court challenge from environmental groups, who have successfully beaten back numerous efforts to delist grizzly bears under the Bush, Trump and Obama administrations using what Barrasso and Patrick Crank, the vice president of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, described Wednesday as a biased judiciary.

“Environmental groups and environmentally minded judges have, via endless litigation on ESA listings or delistings, thwarted and ignored the very purpose of the ESA,” Crank said in his testimony before the commission.

If passed, the Grizzly Bear State Management Act would not only direct the interior secretary to reissue the department’s 2017 final rule delisting the grizzly bear, but would also protect the reissuance of that final rule from judicial review, a decision that would remove the grizzly from “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act and essentially put the grizzly’s fate in the hands of Congress.

John D. Leshy, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and a former official within the Department of the Interior for both the Clinton and Carter administrations, argued to the committee this would run counter to the original intent of the law, which sought to include the judicial branch as an important partner in upholding the mission of the Endangered Species Act.

While Crank said environmental groups often look to “shop” around for venues favorable to their concerns — a common strategy for environmental groups — numerous decisions by the courts have been made over the years beyond the concerns of conservationists. Earlier this year, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of several tribal governments’ complaint that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately examine the impact delisting grizzly bears would have on grizzly populations beyond the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Environmental groups that have sought to uphold the Endangered Species Act, meanwhile, maintain that they are playing by the same rules as anyone else.

“Anti-ESA members of Congress have been spouting out that talking point for years,” Stephanie Kurose, a senior endangered species policy specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote in an email. “Environmental groups are bound to the same federal and state laws as anyone else when identifying jurisdictions where a lawsuit may be filed.”

The loss of an intermediary in taking away endangered species protections — which only kick in when state management plans fail — could potentially be detrimental to the future of the species, ranking member Tom Carper, D-Delaware, argued in his opening statements.

“I do not believe that Congress should intervene in the final determination on the recovery of this species — or any species, for that matter,” he said. “Judicial review of agency decisions is central to ensuring that the Endangered Species Act is guided by science and informed by public input.”

While scientists have often spoken against the motivations of states in gaining primacy over grizzly populations — a debate that came to a head prior to Gov. Matt Mead’s proposed grizzly hunt in 2018 — Wyoming officials maintain that states can strike a balance between the needs of humans and animals.

“You have the world’s best wildlife managers in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho that will continue to observe and protect this iconic species,” Crank said. “The idea that any wildlife management agency would take steps to allow a species to end up back on this list is preposterous to me. You would not ask to have cancer twice.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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