Court says Yellowstone grizzlies still threatened

11-22-2011 // Matthew Brown

This excerpt is from the Seattle Pi via Associated Press.

Bear grizzly

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region need continued protection under the Endangered Species Act due to the decline of a tree species that serves as a key food source for some of the animals.

The ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocks the federal government's effort to lift protections on about 600 threatened grizzlies across 19,000 square miles of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

Such a move would have turned over management of the animals to state wildlife agencies that could set hunts for grizzlies for the first time in decades.

But Yellowstone's whitebark pine tree stands are fast disappearing because of beetle infestations brought on by a warmer climate. And that means some grizzlies can't get the pine nuts they relied on as a source of protein.

A three-judge 9th Circuit panel said federal wildlife officials wrongly were trying to push past that issue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had argued grizzlies could adapt and find other food sources.

"Now that this threat has emerged, the Service cannot take a full-speed ahead, damn-the-torpedoes approach to delisting," Judge Richard Tallman wrote.

Judges also were unconvinced that protections could be restored at a later date if the bears' recovery falters: "We reject out of hand any suggestion that the future possibility of relisting a species can operate as a reasonable justification for delisting."

Protections for Yellowstone grizzlies were lifted in 2007 following a costly recovery effort that also has resulted in a sharp increase in bear-human run-ins. Four people have been killed by grizzly bears in Montana and Wyoming over the past two years.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chris Tollefson said the ruling was under review.

The agency's grizzly bear coordinator, Chris Servheen, said an appeal was unlikely. He said officials soon would start working on a new proposal to lift protections based on research not available to the 9th Circuit.

Since the case began in 2007 — and despite the loss of whitebark — the grizzly population has continued to expand.

"We're seeing the bears pushing out to where they haven't been in decades, and the density of bears in the center of the ecosystem is very high," Servheen said. "We can provide more information on the whitebark issue as they requested."