Appeals Court Rejects USFWS Authorization To Kill Grizzlies In Response To Livestock Conflict Just Outside Yellowstone

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s authorization of the killing of up to 72 grizzly bears on public land just outside of Yellowstone National Park violated federal law.

Meant to accommodate private grazing operations in grizzly habitat, the 2019 grazing authorization would have allowed an unlimited percentage of females to be killed in response to livestock conflict, despite the significance of breeding bears to the species’ recovery.

But now the court has remanded the decision to the agencies to fix the legal deficiencies.

“We’re hopeful that in reconsidering their flawed analysis, the agencies will spare dozens of female grizzly bears previously 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 can’t sidestep the law to allow grizzly bears to be killed on public lands to appease the livestock industry.”

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

“Today’s decision is a victory not only for endangered grizzly bears but for all wildlife in the Upper Green River Area,” said Megan Backsen, Tenth Circuit attorney for WWP. “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 very survival.”

The grazing program area, approved by the U.S. Forest Service in 2019, encompasses the headwaters of the Green and Gros Ventre rivers and parts of two designated wilderness areas in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The area provides important habitat for Yellowstone grizzly bears — listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — and other imperiled fish and wildlife species.

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

The judges also ruled that the Forest Service failed to follow its own Forest Plan requirements regarding wildlife habitat protections for migratory birds. Some 96% of the lands approved for livestock is zoned in the Forest Plan for a wildlife protection emphasis instead.

“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, Western Watersheds Project’s Wyoming office director. We are pleased to see that the court understands that the promises made in the Forest Plan are made to the American people and the wildlife that lives on these lands.”

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

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