- By Mike Koshmrl Jackson Hole Daily
Federal wildlife managers are looking into whether a court ruling jeopardizes the legality of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho’s oversight of Yellowstone-area grizzly bears.
The review of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzlies traces to a July court ruling that found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred in not assessing how “delisting” Great Lakes states’ wolves affects the canines in the rest of their historic range.
The agency took the same approach when it revoked Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies this summer, delisting an isolated cluster of about 700 bears called a “distinct population segment.” But the bureaucrats did not have the luxury of reviewing the appeals court’s opinion, which kept wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan under federal control.
“What happened is we put the [grizzly] rule out on June 30th, and then the opinion came out about a week later,” said Hilary Cooley, Fish and Wildlife’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator.
“We had not received that opinion,” she said, “so this is new information for us that we need to consider. We’re taking a close look at it.”
The public is being asked to weigh in, with comments due by Jan. 5.
The process does not mean the final grizzly delisting rule is being opened again, Cooley said.
“I want to be clear: The rule is final, and it stands, and bears are delisted,” she said. “To say any more right now is pretty premature.”
Fish and Wildlife plans to make a decision on the matter by March 31. It’s unlikely the outcome would flip management of the region’s bears back to the federal agency.
“I don’t anticipate remanding the rule,” Cooley said.
Wildlife activists view the review as a dodge from complying with legal precedent.
“It seems like a pretty lame attempt to fix some fatal flaws that the Fish and Wildlife Service is now acknowledging exist in that rule,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney in Victor, Idaho. “The fact is that they’re taking this unprecedented step of collecting public comment on a rule that’s already issued.”
Independent of the Fish and Wildlife review, the courts will also determine whether the Yellowstone grizzly rule jibes with the law. Environmental activists, Native American tribes and other parties filed at least six lawsuits after grizzlies became a state-managed species, and the complaints weren’t filed until after the wolf ruling was issued.
Fish and Wildlife initiated the public review “in part” to cover its legal bases, Cooley said.
“The lawsuit’s key on this issue, and it’s information we did not have when we put the rule out,” she said. “But it’s also due diligence.”
The court that decided the Great Lakes wolves case found that Fish and Wildlife improperly “brushed off” the substantial loss of wolves’ historical range as “irrelevant to the species’ endangered or threatened status.” But the panel of judges did find that the general approach of delisting an isolated population complied with federal law. The analysis and execution, they found, is what was illegal.
The 515-page delisting rule for Yellowstone grizzlies mentions the Northern Continental Divide population — in the nearest grizzly recovery area, approximately 70 miles away — 48 times. The smaller and more distant Cabinet/Yaak, Selkirk and North Cascades populations are mentioned between six and eight times each. Federal managers and the courts will soon decide whether the analysis behind those numbers does the job.