FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2013, file photo, a grizzly bear cub searches for fallen fruit beneath an apple tree a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont. A judge will decide whether the Lower 48 states' first grizzly bear hunting season in more than four decades will open as scheduled the weekend of Aug. 31, 2018. (Alan Rogers/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP, file)

Judge declines to issue quick ruling on protecting grizzlies

August 30, 2018 - 1:46 pm

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge said Thursday he would not make an immediate ruling on whether to restore federal protections for a group of about 700 grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains, forcing wildlife advocates to try to find another legal way to block bear hunting set to begin this weekend in two states.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said at a packed court hearing in Missoula that he knew many people expected him to issue a quick ruling from the bench on the fate of the bears living in and around Yellowstone National Park, but told those attending "that's not going to happen."

He said he would issue a decision as quickly as possible but did not say whether he would rule before Saturday, when Wyoming and Idaho scheduled the first bear hunts to begin in the Lower 48 states since 1974.

"If I issued a decision today that would mean I have already made up my mind," Christensen said.

Christensen asked Erik Petersen, Wyoming's senior assistant attorney general, if his state would consider delaying the hunt until the judge's ruling is issued. Petersen did not directly answer Christensen, but made a counteroffer to the judge.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead was willing to "make adjustments" to the hunting season, Petersen said, if the judge leaves 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.

Christensen did not take Petersen up on his offer in the hearing. The judge's delayed ruling prompted the wildlife advocates who are pushing to restore federal protections to the bears to hurriedly draft a request for a temporary restraining order that would block the opening of the Wyoming and Idaho hunts.

Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney representing several conservation groups and the Northern Cheyenne tribe, asked the judge to rule on the request quickly so that they can file an emergency request with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, if necessary.

Mike Garrity, the executive director for plaintiff Alliance for the Wild Rockies, it was essential for Christensen to rule before Saturday.

"It's very important because 30 minutes before sunrise on Saturday morning, people could start killing bears," Garrity said.

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 the three states that have taken over bear management will ensure the bears' survival.

Among their arguments in court, attorneys for the 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 by the court's decision 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.

"There are westerners who have to deal with this every day and who apex-level predators in their backyard," said Cody Wisniewski, a lawyer for the Wyoming Farm Bureau.

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 in two phases: Sept. 1 opens 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.

Wildlife officials in those states say they're ready for opening day, which 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.