Grizzly Bears, Endangered Species Act Win Big in Federal Court

Yaak, MT – On Tuesday, August 22, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is prohibited from reinventing the legal definition of an endangered species.

In 2014, when FWS managers declined to list as endangered the remnant population of grizzly bears that live in Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, in northern Idaho and northwest Montana, the agency broke the law.  After almost three years of battling the agency in federal court, that crucial decision would ultimately lead to a huge conservation victory for grizzly bears, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the plaintiff, Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

The federal ESA defines an endangered species as one that is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

The FWS claimed that population of 40 to 50 Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bears are not “on the brink of extinction,” therefore did not warrant re-classifying as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies (Alliance) sued, arguing the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population would go extinct unless FWS restricted logging, mining and other activities in bear habitat, stricter management standards that are triggered with an uplisting to endangered status.

The court sided with the Alliance in a ruling that found that the Fish and Wildlife Service had violated U.S. law in determining that the number of bears in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem could reach a targeted recovery goal of 100 without added protections.  The agency had long recognized that the Cabinet-Yaak population of grizzlies was declining by almost 1% per year, and was warranted for listing as an endangered species because of excessive human-caused mortality and multiple, other threats.  The agency in 2014 reversed course, finding the bears did not need additional safeguards because their population trend had changed to stable from declining.

Christensen ruled that reversal was unlawfully arbitrary and capricious and ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to rework any proposal that would downgrade the status of the bears.

Alliance’s Michael Garrity on Wednesday said:   “The court’s decision was is a tremendous victory for the grizzles. Now they have a chance at survival.”

The Cabinet-Yaak bears are among just a handful of distinct grizzly population fragments that exist in the Lower 48.

Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies, including those found in Yellowstone National Park, the second-largest group of bears in the Lower 48 states, were delisted this summer.

Grizzlies were first listed as threatened in the lower 48 states in 1975.  In 1975, with the grizzly bear extirpated from 98 percent of its former range south of the Canadian border, the federal government opted to protect the remaining populations in the Lower 48 as threatened under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.  The ruling triggered an array of protective measures for bears in Yellowstone, Bitterroot, Selkirk/Cabinet-Yaak, the North Cascades and Northern Continental Divide, including halting the grizzly hunting season.

Tuesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is prohibited from narrowing the definition an endangered species without explaining why it wants to make the policy change.

The federal Endangered Species Act defines an endangered species as one that is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

Christensen ruled that the government effectively changed its policy without explaining it or seeking public input. He reinstated the Cabinet-Yaak bears’ status as warranting classification as an endangered species — essentially putting them back on the waiting list.

In future listings of any animals or plants under the Endangered Species Act, the judge said, the Fish and Wildlife Service must prove that the federal law allows the “brink of extinction” interpretation and provide an explanation of why that interpretation is needed.

“It will apply to all other species when the FWS is considering if a species should be listed as endangered,” said Alliance executive director Mike Garrity.


4 thoughts on “Grizzly Bears, Endangered Species Act Win Big in Federal Court

  1. Hey Steve, congratulations on another court victory. We are in Switzerland, and tomorrow begins the Haute Route … one thing about the Alps, beautiful as they are, they lack wildness. We have backpacked and hiked and slept on the ground in grizzly bear country, with only tent cloth for protection. That fear we feel at things that go bump in the night is an important part of the human experience, to be completely vulnerable to the power of nature, in THEIR country. Guys like you are fighting that battle to keep some semblence of order. What’s theirs is still theirs.


  2. Thanks, Mark. Just two days later, we Montanans had the distinct honor to host a brief, hit-and-run visit from two cabinet secretaries, and two Montana Senators railing against “frivolous lawsuits” and “environmental extremists.”

    I have found generally that people who don’t like grizzlies don’t like forest fires or environmental activists either — all God’s Creation (nature). A lot of people who hate nature (God) go to church regularly, which I find weird.


    1. A lot of people who hate nature (God) go to church regularly, which I find weird.

      Not if that church worships Baal Moloch …


      Not sure if it’s so bad we haven’t grizzlies in the alps…
      I think they grizzlies never were an indigenous European species. Brown bears were ubiquitous, but now extinct in most regions. Coincidentally or not, the last reported kill use to fall in the 1750…1800 time span.
      And, if you are brave and have the time, have a look at the many bulldozed and asphalted “metropolitan regions” in Europe. Sick nature makes for sick people …


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