Court strikes down federal authorization to kill 72 grizzlies near Yellowstone

A brown bear strolls through the fall foliage in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.  (Photo: Ania Tuzel Photography/Flickr/cc)
A brown bear strolls through the fall foliage in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Photo: Ania Tuzel Photography/Flickr/cc)

PINEDALE, Wyo. – The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled today that the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s authorization to kill up to 72 grizzly bears on public land outside Yellowstone National Park violated federal law.

The 2019 grazing authorization, intended to accommodate private grazing operations in brown bear habitat, would have allowed an unlimited percentage of females to be killed in response to conflict over livestock, despite the importance of bear ranching to the species recovery. But now the court has returned the decision to the agencies to correct the legal deficiencies.

“It is our hope that by reconsidering their erroneous analysis, the agencies will pardon dozens of female grizzly bears sentenced to death by the Trump administration,” said Andrea Zaccardi, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s carnivore conservation program. “This ruling confirms that federal officials cannot circumvent the law to allow brown bears to be killed on public land to appease the ranching industry.”

The court found that, among other issues, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to consider limiting the number of female brown bears that could be killed was arbitrary and capricious because killing too many females could endanger the brown bear population in the project area. In so ruling, the court recognized the importance of protecting female grizzly bears for their recovery.

“Today’s decision is a victory not only for endangered brown bears but for all wildlife in the Upper Green River area,” said Megan Backsen, WWP 10th Circuit Attorney. “The Court recognized that the Forest Service cannot ignore its own experts, particularly when those experts warn that a decision will harm those species that depend on intact ecosystems for their own survival.”

The grazing program area, approved by the US Forest Service in 2019, encompasses the headwaters of the Green and Gros Ventre rivers and portions of two designated wilderness areas on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The area provides important habitat for Yellowstone brown bears, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and other endangered fish and wildlife.

The challenged decision authorized the killing of up to 72 brown bears during the 10-year life of the reauthorized grazing program. The decision placed no limits on the killing of bears or cubs, even though females with cubs live where the proposed kill would be allowed.

The judges also ruled that the Forest Service failed to comply with the requirements of its own Forest Plan regarding the protection of wildlife habitat for migratory birds. About 96% of the lands approved for cattle ranching are zoned in the Forest Plan with an emphasis on wildlife protection.

“Throughout this case, the Forest Service has tried to run away from its wildlife habitat commitments made to the public in its Forest Plan,” said Jonathan Ratner, Director of the Wyoming Office of the Western Watersheds Project. We are pleased to see that the court understands that the promises made in the Forest Plan are made to the American people and to the wildlife that live on these lands.” The Forest Service has always ignored their Forest Plan and treated it like feedlot cattle. .

Yellowstone’s Dr. John Carter to the Uintas Connection said, “We have collected data within allotments that shows how much degradation the cattle have caused.

We have provided reports to the Forest Service, but they feel they can just ignore the data. We hope and hope that the Forest Service begins to put its duties to the land and the American people before the interests of a few ranchers.”

“Before grizzly bears can recover and be delisted, we need security measures to ensure that the breeding population gets adequate protection from depredations by the ranching industry,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance Wild Rockies. “We are delighted that the court has sent the agencies back to the drawing board.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection filed two separate lawsuits on March 31, 2020 challenging the agencies’ decisions. Although the lawsuit was originally filed in the US District Court for Columbia, it was later transferred to the US District Court for Wyoming. The US District Court for Wyoming entered a ruling upholding agency decisions on May 17, 2022. Today’s opinion overturns that decision.