MISSOULA, Mont. — A judge on Thursday temporarily blocked the opening of the first grizzly bear hunts in the Rocky Mountains in more than 40 years, as he considers whether the government was wrong to lift federal protections on the animals.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen’s order came just two days before Idaho and Wyoming prepared to open the first grizzly bear hunting seasons in the Lower 48 states since 1974.
The order will remain in effect 14 days.
“The threat of death to individual bears posed by the scheduled hunts is sufficient” to justify a delay in the states’ hunting seasons, Christensen wrote in the order.
The move marked a victory for wildlife advocates and Native American tribes that sued over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision in 2017 to lift protections for 700 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park.
“We’re thrilled,” said Mike Garrity, the executive director for plaintiff Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Now the judge has time to rule without grizzly bears being killed starting Saturday morning.”
The plaintiffs had argued the bears still face threats to their survival. Federal wildlife officials say the bears are thriving.
Fewer than two dozen bears would be allowed to be killed in the hunts.
The advocacy groups claim the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last year that Yellowstone grizzlies are no longer a threatened species was based on faulty science. They also say they don’t trust that the three states that have taken over bear management will ensure the bears’ survival. They are asking the judge to reclassify the bears as threatened.
Gov. Matt Mead was willing to “make adjustments” to the hunting season, said Erik Petersen, Wyoming’s senior assistant attorney general. He wants the judge to leave Wyoming, Montana and Idaho in charge of managing the bears — even if he rules that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to revise its rule declassifying grizzlies as threatened.
“The likelihood of any significant harm to the population is essentially nil,” Petersen said.
Among their arguments in court, attorneys for the advocacy groups questioned how other threatened grizzly populations in the Lower 48 states would fare if the Yellowstone bears’ status changed. They also said the federal wildlife agency ignored recent spikes in overall bear deaths that, when hunting is added to the mix, could cause an unanticipated population decline.
Department of Justice attorneys said the Fish and Wildlife Service considered all the plaintiffs’ arguments and proceeded with lifting protections because there is no threat of extinction to the bears now or in the foreseeable future.
“They have a lot of speculation, (but) they have very little facts,” said attorney Michael Eitel.
Petersen and attorneys representing Montana and Idaho said the people most affected will be the farmers and ranchers who live in grizzly territory and have increasing conflicts with bears attacking livestock. Those people have been cooperative with conservation efforts, but that attitude may change if federal protections are restored, they said.
The population of grizzlies living in Yellowstone was classified as a threatened species in 1975, when its number had fallen to 136. The Fish and Wildlife Service initially declared a successful recovery for the Yellowstone population in 2007, but a federal judge ordered protections to remain in place while wildlife officials studied whether the decline of a major food source, whitebark pine seeds, could threaten the bears’ survival.
In 2017, the federal agency concluded that it had addressed all threats and ruled that the grizzlies were no longer a threatened species needing restrictive federal protections.
That prompted six lawsuits challenging the agency’s decision. Those lawsuits have been consolidated into one case that Christensen heard on Thursday.
Idaho’s hunting quota is one bear. Wyoming’s hunt is scheduled for two phases: Sept. 1 would have opened the season in an outlying area with a quota of 12 bears, and Sept. 15 starts the season in prime grizzly habitat near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. One female or nine males can be killed in those areas.
It would be Wyoming’s first grizzly hunt since 1974 and Idaho’s first since 1946. Twelve hunters in Wyoming and one in Idaho have been issued licenses out of the thousands who applied.
Montana officials decided not to hold a hunt this year. Bear hunting is not allowed in Yellowstone or Grand Teton.