Daines backs grizzly delisting bill

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines has co-sponsored a bill to remove Endangered Species Act protection from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and prevent any court challenge. The bill gets its first hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday morning.

Fellow Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming authored the 80-word Grizzly Bear Management Act of 2019, which would reissue the Department of Interior’s 2017 delisting rule for Greater Yellowstone grizzlies “without regard to any other provision of statute or regulation that applies to the issuance of such rule. Such reissuance (including this section) shall not be subject to judicial review.” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, authored an identical companion bill in the House of Representatives. The hearing can be viewed on video at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Wednesday.

That delisting rule was rejected by both a Missoula U.S. District Court judge and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals due to problems with the state grizzly management plans and failure to use best available science. Both courts ordered the states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to redo their plans.

Between 700 and 800 grizzly bears inhabit the 9,209-square-mile Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and recovery area including Yellowstone National Park and parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. It is one of six recovery areas in the Lower 48 states where grizzly bears have had ESA protection as a threatened species since 1975. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees grizzly recovery, has failed twice to delist those grizzlies in 2007 and 2017.

Another approximately 1,000 grizzly bears roam the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and recovery area, which covers about 8,900 square miles along the spine of Montana’s Rocky Mountains from the Canadian border south almost to Missoula and Helena. Those bears are considered a distinct population segment from the GYE bears and other recovery areas, and would not be affected by a GYE delisting.

“The science has long proven that the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has fully recovered,” Daines said on Tuesday. “Delisting the grizzly bear is in the best interest of our communities, public safety, the ecosystem, wildlife, and the grizzly bear itself. Montana has proven they can conserve and manage the species and it’s time to return management to the state.”

The bill hearing comes two days before Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council delivers its report to the state Environmental Quality Council with recommendations for grizzly management. One member of that council, Stoltze Land and Lumber President Chuck Roady, will testify on Wednesday in favor of the bill. However, another council member, Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said his organization objected to the bill.

“This is a top-down approach, and we don’t need this,” Gevock said on Tuesday. “States need to adopt solid plans that are sound scientifically and legally. They had them, and then they changed them in 2016 as the delisting came down. They were told the plans were deficient by the Fish and Wildlife Service staff, and they went ahead anyway.”

The court rulings against the 2017 delisting rule particularly faulted the three state wildlife agencies for rejecting FWS advice about proper formulas for estimating grizzly populations. The rulings also questioned how removing protections from one recovery area might affect populations in other areas, several of which have few or no bears and depend on the more productive areas for recruitment.

The bill’s blocking of judicial review is similar to a provision which U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, used to delist gray wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in 2011. The Montana Wildlife Federation supported that delisting because Montana had a strong management plan for wolves in place.

“The key is we had solid conservation plans that ensured we’d have wolves on the landscape,” Gevock said. “The courts said the state-based plans are not adequate. Wyoming wanted the ability to potentially kill hundreds of bears. We need to go back and redo our plans.”