Photo: Gregory Smith (Flickr)

This month, hunters in Wyoming and Idaho were going to have their first opportunity to shoot grizzly bears for sport in more than 40 years. But a court order last week put the kibosh on that, throwing the future of the controversial trophy hunt and the fate of the animals into uncertainty—at least for now.

On August 30, a district court judge in Missoula issued a restraining order temporarily halting Idaho and Wyoming’s planned grizzly bear hunting seasons, which were set to begin on September 1. The order came following a hearing in which a Native American tribe and conservation groups argued that the federal government’s 2017 decision to remove endangered species protections for the Greater Yellowstone grizzly—the second largest of five grizzly bear subpopulations in the Lower 48—was illegal.

Advertisement

Ultimately, it was that decision that paved a path for Wyoming and Idaho to permit trophy hunting of the bears this year. 

“Grizzly bears have not been hunted in the Lower 48 states for more than 40 years and for good reason,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit, told Earther via email. “These magnificent animals occur in less than 5 percent of their historic range and with at most 1,800 bears, less than one percent of their historic abundance. The job of recovery is far from complete.”

The question of recovery is central to the plaintiffs’ argument. Opponents of hunting highlight the fact that the 700-strong Yellowstone grizzly population has declined somewhat in recent years due to increased human-bear conflict, something conservation advocates tie to a loss of key food sources “driven in part by a warming climate.” Conservationists also worry about how the hunt would impact the overall recovery of grizzlies in the Lower 48. As a species, grizzlies are still listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Advertisement

Tim Preso, lead attorney for Earthjustice on the case, pointed Earther to a court decision last year that overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting of Western Great Lakes region gray wolves, because the agency failed to consider negative impacts on the species at large. Preso said the federal agency tried to apply the same logic from that losing case to the current grizzly case.

Apparently, that didn’t sit too well with District Court Judge Dana Christensen, who called out the gray wolf case in last week’s court order. The judge also wrote that the planned hunts would cause irreparable harm to grizzlies “because once a member of an endangered species has been injured, the task of preserving that species becomes all the more difficult.”

While this is all encouraging for opponents, the courts still have to decide whether federal protections for the Yellowstone bears should be restored. The restraining order is in effect until September 14, but Preso said it could be extended if the courts need more time making a decision.

Advertisement

Whatever that decision may be, it could have immediate ripple effects on grizzlies across the U.S. As NPR reports, federal wildlife officials are currently weighing whether to delist the 1,000 grizzlies living around Glacier National Park in Montana, and “[t]he judge’s decision in the Yellowstone grizzly case could shape the way officials proceed.”

A decision on the fate of the Montana grizzlies is expected by the end of the year. As was the case with the Yellowstone population, the delisting of these bears would likely be met with “a slew of lawsuits” per NPR.

This year’s grizzly hunts could still happen. But the fight to restore these iconic predators across the U.S. shows no signs of slowing down.

Advertisement