The United States Fish and Wildlife Service will restore federal protections to grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the agency announced Tuesday.
The GYE, an area of the northern Rocky Mountains encompassing parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, is one of six ecosystems in the lower 48 states that's home to grizzly bears. The ecosystem held only 136 grizzlies when the species was designated as threatened with extinction in 1975, according to the National Park Service. After 44 years on the endangered species list, there are now more than 700 of the 400-pound bears roaming the region.
The Trump administration removed protections for grizzly bears living in the GYE in 2017 (though the proposal was first put forth in 2016 under the Obama administration) after reviewing the "best available and scientific commercial data," which indicated that the species in that ecosystem no longer met the definition of an endangered or threatened species. Protections remained in place for grizzlies in the other five ecosystems.
Six lawsuits were filed to challenge that decision, with plaintiffs bringing up issues such as how encroaching human development and hunting could harm an unprotected grizzly population. The cases were consolidated into one, and in September of 2018, a U.S. District Court in Montana ruled that the removal of the bears' protected status violates the Endangered Species Act. The judge concluded that the agency failed to properly evaluate the ongoing threats to the bears and the impact that delisting the species in the GYE would have on other continental grizzly populations.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is acting in accordance with the judge's decision to restore protections to Yellowstone grizzlies.
"There is widespread public support for grizzly bear conservation, and the Service continues to collaborate with state, federal, non-governmental, and tribal partners to research, monitor, and manage the iconic species and its habitats," the agency said in a press release.
While the restoration is a victory for many conservationists and environmentalists, not everyone sees it that way. Booming grizzly populations can be a source of frustration for ranchers in the Rocky Mountain region when the predators threaten their livestock, NPR reported earlier this year.
Representative Liz Cheney, House Republican Conference chairwoman and Wyoming's sole member in the House, has spoken out against the ruling. She argues that the judge's decision "was not based on science or facts," as she said in a statement, "but was rather the result of excessive litigation pursued by radical environmentalists intent on destroying our Western way of life." She introduced legislation to de-list the bears and move grizzly management back to state authority earlier this year. Cheney believes protecting the bears could negatively affect the rest of the ecosystem, the Hill reported.
Jeremy Miller explored the effort to reintroduce grizzlies in California in a June of 2018 feature for Pacific Standard. In Miller's piece, he speaks with Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, about the beneficial effects grizzlies can actually have on the rest of an ecosystem:
Greenwald refers to a growing body of data showing that large predators such as grizzlies exert a powerful and beneficial top-down influence (known in science jargon as the "trophic cascade") on ecosystems. For example, a grizzly reintroduction may actually reduce human-bear conflicts. This is not a contradiction, because black bears—not grizzlies—are the North American ursine species that tends to get into the most trouble with people, according to Greenwald. "Without grizzly bears, black bears have likely spread into niches they wouldn't have otherwise occupied," he said. He points out that the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone unexpectedly bolstered fox populations, which had been severely suppressed by an overpopulation of coyotes. "There are unexpected interactions and trophic cascades from these reintroductions," he said.