Yellowstone’s grizzly bears cannot be hunted for trophies, a federal court ruled last night, restoring Endangered Species Act protections for these iconic animals, and shutting down plans by Wyoming and Idaho to open a trophy-hunting season – the first in the continental United States since the early 1970s – on the bears.
This great victory comes after a hard-fought, multi-year legal battle waged by Humane Society of the United States attorneys and our wildlife protection team. In June 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prematurely yanked federal ESA protections from Greater Yellowstone area grizzly bears and handed management authority to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Immediately, Wyoming and Idaho wildlife officials launched plans to allow trophy hunters to legally kill up to two dozen grizzly bears.
HSUS first filed lawsuits in state court in Montana and Wyoming, challenging the new state regulations for violating state procedural requirements. Our legal team then challenged the delisting decision in federal court on three key grounds, and the court yesterday agreed with all of them. First, the court held that the FWS illegally separated out the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population despite their connection to, and interdependence with, the other surviving populations of grizzly bears in the United States: this was the same error the FWS committed when it attempted to prematurely delist Great Lakes wolves in 2017. Second, the court found that the FWS failed to ensure that sufficient protections would remain in place to protect grizzly bears after delisting. Finally, it concluded that the delisting decision did not take into account scientific evidence indicating the precarious genetic health of this still vulnerable population.
On their own, any of these failings would constitute sufficient legal grounds to overturn the delisting. Together, they demonstrate what we’ve been arguing all along: that this delisting was a rush to judgment, driven by political pressure from hunting and ranching interests, that trumped the best available science and the opinion of many non-agency biologists who opposed this premature delisting. Public opinion across the nation was with the bears on this one, too.
Yesterday’s victory also highlights how important the Endangered Species Act is in ensuring that America’s most imperiled wildlife – including the grizzly bears who helped spark its passage in 1973 – receive the protections they deserve. But the future of this act, which the Supreme Court has called “the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species ever enacted by any nation,” is now in jeopardy. During the past year and a half, the administration and the 115th Congress have launched over a hundred attacks on the ESA, and in July, the Department of the Interior proposed changes that would weaken this bedrock law and make it harder to secure federal protections for endangered and threatened species.
Today’s win is an important one, and it is an encouraging reminder of what can be achieved in the fight for all animals. Let’s celebrate today, but let’s also resolve to stand strong against unnecessary and dangerous efforts to dismantle protections for American wildlife. Wild animals need our best effort, now more than ever.