Trump administration settles Montana lawsuit, agrees to review status of grizzly bears

A grizzly bear was captured in this trail-camera image in the Kelly Creek area of the Bitterroot Mountains in 2018.

(CN) The last grizzly bear in California was shot in the Sierra Foothills, just outside of Fresno, in 1922, so it is a sad irony that the animal still adorns California’s state flag – a symbol of the state’s pride but also a reminder of its history of overmanaging wildlife to the detriment of predators and a natural ecological balance.

Grizzly bears have struggled elsewhere, as well. They have been chased out of their historical range throughout the lower 48 states. They no longer roam the Great Plains and have been extirpated from Arizona, New Mexico and the parts of Texas where they once prowled.

Out of an estimated 55,000 grizzly bears in North America – most of which live in Alaska – only around 1,500 live in the lower 48 states. But a consortium of environmental groups seeking to change that scored a victory Monday when a federal judge in Montana approved a settlement agreement requiring the Trump administration to review the status of the grizzly bear by March 2021.

“The agreement disposes of Plaintiffs’ first claim for relief, that the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) failed to timely conduct a five-year status review of grizzly bear populations in the lower-48 states pursuant to [the Endangered Species Act],” Judge Dana L. Christensen wrote in the order.

The coalition, led by the Center for Biological Diversity – which sued in June – said it hopes the order will prompt federal agencies to move with more urgency in crafting a plan that will aid in the recovery of the ursine species in much of its traditional range.

“Grizzlies in the lower 48 still face an uphill battle to recovery,” Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Andrea Santarsiere said. “I really hope this review will convince the Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit the idea of reintroducing grizzly bears in more areas of their historic range, as the agency proposed in its last status review.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed grizzly bears as threatened in 1975 and then crafted a recovery plan in 1993, which became the bedrock for how the species was treated in the lower 48 states.

But in 2011, the service acknowledged the 1993-plan was insufficient and did not reflect the best available science, particularly as the plan lacked recovery efforts for other states in the bear’s historic range including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, southern Washington, Arizona and California.

Of the 1,500 grizzlies living in the lower 48, around 800 live in Montana, 600 live in the Yellowstone-Teton area of Wyoming, and there are a few other scattered populations in northeastern Idaho.

The Center and other organizations blame the federal agency for dragging its feet in formulating an updated recovery plan that includes reintroduction and population management plans throughout the entirety of its range.

“It’s frustrating that we have to sue the Trump administration again and again to force it to follow the law,” Santarsiere said. “We look forward to receiving an updated recovery plan that can serve as a step toward fully recovering grizzly bears in the wild.”

The Fish and Wildlife service did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The Center also sued the service in 2017 after the Trump administration stripped Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears inhabiting the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

In 2018, a federal judge overturned the administration’s protection removal, ruling that it was illegal and staving off a trophy hunt that was slated to commence last fall.

Had the protections been removed, up to 23 bears would have been allowed to be killed outside of Yellowstone National Park.