Judge to de­cide if griz­zly hunts re­sume in Rock­ies

The Tribune (SLO) - - State - BY MATT VOLZ

AHELENA, MONT. judge is ex­pected to make a rul­ing this week on whether the first griz­zly bear hunt­ing sea­son to be held in the Lower 48 states in more than four decades will open as sched­uled on Satur­day out­side Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park.

Wildlife ad­vo­cates and Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes will ap­pear in court Thurs­day to urge U.S. District Judge Dana Chris­tensen to re­in­state fed­eral pro­tec­tions that were lifted last year for ap­prox­i­mately 700 griz­zlies liv­ing in and around Yel­low­stone. They are ask­ing him to do so be­fore the hunts be­gin this week­end in Wyoming and Idaho.

“This is a high-stakes dead­line,” said Tim Preso, an at­tor­ney for Earthjus­tice rep­re­sent­ing sev­eral ad­vo­cacy groups and the North­ern Cheyenne tribe. “We’re down to the wire.”

Wildlife of­fi­cials in Wyoming and Idaho say they’re ready for open­ing day. Twelve hunters in Wyoming and one in Idaho have been is­sued li­censes for Satur­day’s open­ing out of the thou­sands who ap­plied. It would be Wyoming’s first hunt since 1974 and Idaho’s first since 1946.

“We’re just wait­ing for the judge’s de­ci­sion,” said Roger Phillips, spokesman for the Idaho De­part­ment of Fish and Game.

Tens of thou­sands of griz­zly bears once roamed the Lower 48 states, but hunters killed most of them in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies. The pop­u­la­tion of griz­zlies liv­ing in Yel­low­stone dipped to just 136 be­fore it was clas­si­fied with the rest of the Lower 48 states’ griz­zly bear pop­u­la­tions as a threat­ened species in 1975, a de­ci­sion that pro­tected them and their habi­tat and al­lowed the long, slow process of re­cov­ery.

The threat­ened species des­ig­na­tion doesn’t ap­ply to Alaska, where bear hunts are held each spring and fall and the pop­u­la­tion num­bers about 30,000. There, fall hun- ters car­ry­ing high-pow­ered ri­fles track griz­zlies, also called brown bears, through ar­eas with good food sources as the bears look to fat­ten up be­fore they set­tle in their dens for win­ter.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice first de­clared suc­cess in Yel­low­stone in 2007, but a fed­eral judge or­dered pro­tec­tions to re­main in place while wildlife of­fi­cials stud­ied whether the de­cline of a ma­jor food source, white­bark pine seeds, could threaten the bears’ sur­vival.

In 2017, the fed­eral agency con­cluded that it had ad­dressed that and all other threats, and ruled that the griz­zlies liv­ing across 19,000 square miles of the Yel­low­stone area in Mon­tana, Idaho and Wyoming were no longer a threat­ened species.

That de­ci­sion turned man­age­ment of the bears over to the three states, who agreed on a plan that set hunt­ing quo­tas based on the num­ber of deaths each year to en­sure the pop­u­la­tion stays above 600 an­i­mals.

Idaho’s hunt­ing quota is one bear. Wyoming’s hunt is in two phases: Sept. 1 opens the sea­son in an out­ly­ing area with a quota of 12 bears, and Sept. 15 starts the sea­son in prime griz­zly habi­tat near Yel­low­stone and Grand Te­ton na­tional parks. One fe­male or nine males can be killed in those ar­eas.

Mon­tana of­fi­cials de­cided not to hold a hunt this year. Bear hunt­ing is not al­lowed in Yel­low­stone or Grand Te­ton.

With six con­sol­i­dated law­suits filed by 27 plain­tiffs, the ar­gu­ments are com­plex but boil down to two ma­jor themes: There are still threats against bears that the fed­eral agency didn’t ad­e­quately con­sider and the plain­tiffs don’t trust the states will en­sure their sur­vival.

There are about 40 bears in the Cabi­net-Yaak pop­u­la­tion of north­west­ern Mon­tana, and small pop­u­la­tions of griz­zlies in Wash­ing­ton’s North Cas­cade and Selkirk moun­tains. There are no longer any griz­zlies in Idaho and Mon­tana’s Bit­ter­root Moun­tains.

ALAN ROGERS Casper Star-Tri­bune file

A griz­zly cub searches for fallen fruit be­neath an ap­ple tree a few miles from the north en­trance to Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park in Gar­diner, Mont., in Septem­ber 2013.

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