List of Environmental Challenges

Environmental groups and a tribal government are challenging the removal of federal protections from the Yellowstone grizzly bear.

More than a half-dozen environmental groups and one tribal government signed onto three separate letters Friday announcing their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its decision to lift Endangered Species Act protections from the Yellowstone grizzly bear. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe also signed onto one of the letters.

The groups are arguing that the federal government’s decision to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear is premature and that it could do more harm to the bears than good.

“They ought to take as much time as it takes to get it right, and they still haven’t done that, ” said Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice.

The letters officially notify the federal government that the groups plan to sue over the delisting. The Endangered Species Act requires plaintiffs give the federal government 60-days’ notice before suing. It’s meant to allow the federal government to reverse course or make changes to avoid litigation.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the letters. The bears will officially be delisted on July 31.

Yellowstone’s grizzly bears were first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, when there were as few as 136 bears in the region. The population is now estimated at about 700 bears.

The federal government tried to delist the bears in 2007, but a lawsuit from environmental groups thwarted that effort. A federal judge agreed with the environmental groups’ argument that the federal government had ignored the impact on the bears of the decline in white bark pine trees — which produce nuts that grizzly bears eat. Government scientists studied the decline of white bark pine after that lawsuit and came to the conclusion that bears can make up for that declining food source by switching to other foods, like meat.

The Obama administration began the delisting process anew in 2016. Last week, the Department of the Interior announced it would be lifting the protections.

But many environmental groups and some tribal governments still think the federal government is moving too quickly. They cite the growing number of bear deaths, increased human conflicts brought by the bears’ shift to a more meat-based diet and the potential legal conflict posed by delisting one subpopulation of bears before recovering all grizzlies in the lower 48.

Preso said the delisting is illegal because the federal government’s argument for delisting the Yellowstone bears relies on the bears being considered a distinct population — a move that was rejected by one court when the USFWS used it with wolves in the Great Lakes region. The government has appealed that court’s ruling, but a decision has not been handed down yet.

Kelly Nokes, of WildEarth Guardians, said delisting the Yellowstone grizzlies would undermine the Endangered Species Act and set a bad precedent.

“Our biggest concerns are the fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service is isolating out the Greater Yellowstone population from its larger duties to recover the species as a whole, ” said Kelly Nokes, of WildEarth Guardians.

WildEarth Guardians joined with the Western Environmental Law Center to send their letter of intent to sue. Three environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe signed onto the letter Earthjustice sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service. A third letter was sent by Native Ecosystems Council, Western Watersheds Project and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Mike Garrity, the executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said his group sent its own letter in an attempt to avoid settling, as happened with a lawsuit over the delisting of wolves in 2011. In that case, 14 groups sued over the government’s plans to delist wolves in Montana and Idaho and won. But later, 10 of the groups negotiated a settlement with the federal government that lifted protections for the wolves.

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