BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – US court of appeal said Wednesday that a federal judge was right to restore protection to about 700 grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area of the Rockies after federal officials sought to entrust management animals to states that would have allowed them to hunt.
The decision means federal wildlife officials will have to do more to justify their proposal to lift protections for bears in parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho that include Yellowstone National Park.
However, the Court of Appeal said that the judge should not have required a full examination of grizzly bears in their remaining range in the lower 48 states in order to lift the protections for the Yellowstone bears.
The decision of a panel of three judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals came after proposals to hunt grizzly bears in Wyoming and Idaho were blocked in 2018 by U.S. district judge Dana Christensen .
Federal authorities had removed animal protections under the Endangered Species Act, and hunting was about to begin when Christensen intervened after Native American tribesmen and wildlife advocates sued to restore protections.
He said that the genetic health of the animals remains in doubt and that authorities need to determine whether removing the protections for bears in and around Yellowstone would harm other animal populations. This includes grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide region of Montana and the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk mountains of Montana, Idaho and Washington state.
The court of appeal agreed with government lawyers who said that Christensen had gone too far in demanding an examination of these residual populations. But he sided with wildlife advocates on the issue of genetics, saying the government had not done enough to ensure that hunting and other pressures did not reduce the size of the population where bear genetic health could be compromised.
Lawyers for the wildlife advocates in the case said they hoped the decision would encourage federal officials to focus more on the conservation of grizzly bears rather than the lifting of guarantees for their survival.
But supporters of the government’s attempt to remove protections have said eliminating the need for a full review of the remaining bear populations could speed up the process in the future after years of courtroom battles .
Government officials did not contest the other concerns raised by Christensen, including the question of whether sufficient safeguards were in place to prevent bears from slipping into extinction if states organized hunts.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is already working on this issue, according to court documents. The agency has not departed from the position that protections are no longer guaranteed.
Representatives of the agency refused to answer questions from the Associated Press about the decision.
Source: AP News