Don't mess with Yellowstone's grizzlies: Bears are back on endangered list

Shooting grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park is no longer allowed. Period. A U.S. District Court ruling has required the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to put the iconic animal back on the Endangered Species Act protected list. The decision earlier this week is a huge victory for environmentalists who had long contended the grizzly was prematurely removed from the list and still faced extinction.

While grizzlies were off the list, 37 were shot by people in 2008, the highest shooting mortality rate in decades. Hunting grizzlies is illegal even if they are not endangered. But wildlife advocates believe the removal of the Yellowstone grizzlies more than two years ago encouraged shootings. They also say the lack of endangered species protection resulted in diminished punishments against violators who claimed they shot bears in self defense, including, in some cases, small cubs.
The ruling is among the first of what will likely be a cascade of environmental policy reversals undertaken by the Obama Administration. The Bush Administration aggressively rolled back policies protecting the environment, claiming enforcement had gone too far in many cases and was impeding important economic activity. This behavior made the Bush Adminstration among the most hated by the environmental community in recent memory. The case of the grizzly bears and their removal from the list was considered emblematic of the Bushies' anti-critter policies.

The grizzly bear has long been an embattled symbol for both environmentalists and conservatives. Environmentalists were appalled when the Fish and Wildlife Service removed Yellowstone grizzlies from the list in April 2007, one of many moves by the Bush Administration that upset the environmental community. The government argued that the bears were no longer in danger and should not be on the list. Outraged environmentalists, led by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, filed suit to have that move reversed.

Their reason for the lawsuit was belief that the bears had not recovered in sufficient numbers. The coalition contended that the removal was incredibly hasty and dangerous to the long-term survival of the bears. When the grizzlies were removed from the list, only 500 or so remained in Yellowstone. That was triple the number of bears during the population's nadir but far from what many wildlife experts considered to be a healthy population for such a huge swath of land.

On Monday, U.S. Court District Judge Donald Molloy validated the environmentalists objections and ordered Fish and Wildlife to put the bear back under endangered species protections, according to Switchboard, the blog of the National Resources Defense Council. In that ruling, the judge found that Fish and Wildlife violated the Endangered Species Act and scolded the service for failing to put in place rules to protect grizzlies after their removal from the list.

He also cited the agency's failure to take into account the loss of whitebark pine seeds, they key food source of fall food for Yellowstone grizzlies. Whitebark pines have suffered a massive die-off in Yellowstone as warm winters have dramatically increased populations of pine beetles, a pest that gnaws on the whitebarks until the trees die. The warm winters have also allowed the beetles to move to higher elevations where previously pines had thrived and grizzlies had noshed on more abundant seeds.

The grizzlies also suffered at the hands of hunters in the past two years, as well. In 2008, 54 grizzly bears died, including 37 shot by humans -- the highest mortality rate ever recorded. The only other time in recent history that so many bears have died was 40 years ago when Yellowstone National Park closed its garbage dumps and the bears waltzed into villages and camping sites in search of food. The bear was first listed as endangered in 1975 after its population began to decline steeply in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This suit is the first of several relating to grizzlies. The National Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, among other organizations, also filed suit in cases that are still pending in Idaho. All the cases will likely be impacted by the Molloy Decision, which could set a significant precedent for bear rulings. Environmentalists say the bear populations still may not recover but at least they won't be shot by humans anymore.

Welcome back, Mr. Bear. We're glad you're safe and sound again.
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