A federal judge in Montana restored protection Monday for an estimated 600 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, citing in part a decline in their food supply caused by climate change.
After bouncing back from near-extermination last century, grizzlies were declared recovered in 2007, when they were stripped of their threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.
But in a 46-page ruling delivered Monday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy sided with environmental groups who argued the bruins remain at risk.
Among other factors, he cited a decline in whitebark pine trees -- a key food source for many bears that has been disrupted by climate change, forest fires and other factors. Government researchers have made similar links, but that research was downplayed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its 2007 decision.
"There is a disconnect between the studies the agency relies on here and its conclusions," Molloy wrote in his ruling. "These studies still state that there is a connection between whitebark pine and grizzly survival."
The greater Yellowstone area of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming has one of the densest concentrations of grizzlies in the lower 48 states. Bouncing back from near-extermination in the last century, the Yellowstone-area population has grown from an estimated 200 animals in 1981 to more than 600 today.
At the time the animals were delisted in March 2007, the grizzly bear program was touted by the Bush administration as a model framework for restoring at-risk species, successfully balancing conservation and the pressures of human development.
But in his ruling, Molloy sharply criticized the rationale behind the decision and ordered the Obama administration to immediately restore the animal's threatened status.
Grizzlies are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. In the Yellowstone area, the bears rely heavily on nuts from the cones of the whitebark pine, a high-elevation tree that has suffered a dramatic decline in recent years as warmer temperatures let pine-killing beetles flourish.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesman declined to comment directly on Molloy's ruling, saying agency staff needed to review it.
"We're going to take some time with this rule because it's so significant," spokesman Matt Kales said. "This is obviously a pretty big policy matter for us. Our first and foremost concern remains with the status of the bear."
Environmentalists welcomed the ruling and said it underscored the need for government agencies to pay more heed to the potential damage climate change can cause for at-risk animal and plant species.
"The decline of the whitebark pine is one more wake-up call that we urgently need to address the cause of many species' impending extinctions," said Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in a separate federal lawsuit over grizzlies in Idaho that remains pending.
In his ruling, Molloy also said state and federal conservation plans meant to protect Yellowstone-area grizzlies into the future were inadequate. He said the government relied too heavily on population monitoring and failed to spell out what steps would be taken if grizzly numbers started to fall.
Members of Wyoming's congressional delegation said they were disappointed in the judge's ruling.
In a joint media release, U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said the Fish and Wildlife Service made the "right call" in delisting the grizzly. They said the judge's decision was not based on recovery numbers, which show the grizzly bear is thriving in the Yellowstone National Park area.
"Two years ago, the federal government and the states came together and -- based on sound science and a healthy grizzly bear population -- agreed that the grizzlies no longer needed the protection of the ESA," Enzi said. "It is unfortunate that one slam of the gavel can erase that agreement."
Barrasso said healthy bear numbers set by the Fish and Wildlife Service have been met. "Today's ruling defies logic and law," he said.
"Subverting the ESA through judicial activism under the auspice of climate change would be laughable if the impacts weren't so dire for Wyoming's public land users," Lummis said.
Officials with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which manages the grizzly in the state, did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. The state had sided with the federal government in defending against the lawsuit by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
The conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Craig Kenworthy, said threats to grizzlies "are likely to accelerate" as climate change intensifies and more tree-killing beetles survive milder winters.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal said he expects the Fish and Wildlife Service to defend grizzly delisting in both the pending Idaho case and by appealing Molloy's Monday ruling.
"This is the first in what will be two decisions about grizzly bear delisting. We will want to see what the federal court in Idaho says and weigh our options accordingly," the governor said in a media release.
"To be honest, our concern up to this point was whether bear numbers in Wyoming were getting too big," said the governor, who with wife Nancy traveled by horseback into the heart of grizzly bear country this summer. "In talking to the wardens who took Nancy and me into the Thorofare, bear counts are higher than we've seen them for a long, long time."
Grizzlies were first listed as endangered in 1975. The government has spent more than $20 million on its effort to restore the species.