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Grizzlies returned to threatened species status

JACKSON — Wyoming and two neighboring states lost decision-making authority over grizzly bears with a federal judge’s ruling more than 10 months ago, but it wasn’t until this week that the federal government formally completed the paperwork to comply.

The “relisting” of grizzly bears as a federally classified “threatened” animal under the Endangered Species Act became a done deal Tuesday. The last step was publishing a final rule in the Federal Register, a document that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Margaret Everson signed off on.

“Per the September 24, 2018, court order, any and all grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are once again listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act,” Everson wrote in a letter accompanying the rule. “Because the Court vacated the entire 2017 delisting rule, all grizzly bears in the lower 48 States are again listed as threatened.”

The environmental groups whose legal complaints led to U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen’s decision cheered the finality of the issue, at least for now.

“It is just good to see it in writing,” Victor, Idaho, resident and Center for Biological Diversity attorney Andrea Santarsiere said.

“All grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, including Yellowstone’s magnificent bears, warrant federal protections under the Endangered Species Act until the species is truly recovered,” she said. “We are prepared to fight to ensure these bears get the continued protections that they deserve.”

Congressional delegates for the states, which signed on as intervenors in the lawsuit, predictably had a much different perception of the news.

“The grizzly is fully recovered in Wyoming,” U.S. Sen. John Barrasso said in a statement. “End of story.”

“The Fish and Wildlife Service first moved to delist the bear almost 15 years ago,” Barrasso said. “The last three administrations made the determination that the grizzly bear was recovered.”

Ruling out of Missoula, Montana, Christensen put a stop to planned grizzly bear hunts by issuing a restraining order last fall hours before the season was going to open. Ultimately, he concluded that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service misinterpreted science about genetic connectivity and that the agency erred by allowing Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to change how they count grizzlies at some point in the future. An appeal is underway.

An estimated 700 grizzlies reside in portions of the Yellowstone region where populations are estimated, although the occupied range of Ursus arctos horribilis has expanded significantly outside of that area.

Wyoming lawmakers, frustrated with the ruling, authorized the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to shirk the rule of law, and allow the hunting of grizzlies even though they are federally classified as threatened. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission considered taking that step but decided against it, not wanting to make felons out of its licensed hunters.

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