The fight over lifting federal protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears moved to a U.S. Senate committee room on Wednesday.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on S. 614, the Grizzly Bear State Management Act. The bill, introduced by Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, would direct federal officials to reissue the 2017 rule that removed Endangered Species Act protections from bears in the Yellowstone region. It would also bar any litigation over the move.
The Department of the Interior delisted the bears in 2017, but the decision was overturned by a lawsuit from conservation groups and tribes.
During the hearing Wednesday, backers of the bill said the Yellowstone grizzly population is in good shape and that it’s time to cede management of the bears back to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, a cosponsor of the bill, cited higher bear numbers, run-ins with humans and livestock losses as evidence Yellowstone grizzlies should no longer be listed as threatened.
“The science has long proven that the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has recovered,” Daines said. “Both Montanans and bears suffer as we await action.”
Enzi and fellow Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso — another cosponsor — also spoke in favor of the bill at the hearing, as did witnesses from Montana and Wyoming who support delisting. The two Republican senators from Idaho are also cosponsors of the bill.
Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester opposes the bill, saying in an emailed statement that while he believes bears are recovered, “we need to make sure that all state plans are ready for primetime before we push for legislative delisting.”
The bill also faces opposition from tribes and conservationists who want to see the bears keep protections or who don’t want Congress meddling in these sorts of decisions. Some also have concerns with the bill shielding the decision from judicial review.
John Leshy, a professor emeritus at the Hastings College of Law at the University of California and former Interior Department attorney, said he didn’t have an opinion on whether the bears were recovered, but argued that court reviews of agency decisions are important to ensuring the Endangered Species Act works as intended.
“My considered judgment based on my long experience is that courts generally have played a constructive role in the act’s implementation,” Leshy said.
Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states were first listed as threatened in 1975. At the time, the population of grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park was estimated at fewer than 150. Now, biologists estimate there are 700 or more.
Delisting would cede management authority to the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho and would open the door for the hunting of grizzly bears.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the bears in 2007. Conservation groups sued, arguing that the agency hadn’t adequately considered the impact of the decline in white bark pine trees on the bears. Bears eat cones from the trees.
A judge sided with the environmentalists and restored the protections in 2009.
Eight years later, after scientists studied white bark pine and found the bears had shifted to other food sources, the Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the bears again.
Conservationists and tribes challenged that delisting in court by arguing the Fish and Wildlife Service erred by not considering the impact delisting would have on grizzlies elsewhere in the Lower 48, which would remain protected under the law.
The judge agreed, restoring protections to the bears in 2018 and blocking impending hunting seasons. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision this summer.
The court decisions direct the Fish and Wildlife Service to fix problems in the conservation plans identified by the court. Leshy said it should be easy for the government to fix those problems and move toward delisting again.
But supporters of the delisting bill argue the court decisions amount to judges making wildlife management decisions.
Chuck Roady, vice president of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber and member of Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, said at the hearing Wednesday that the decision is an example of judges not following the scientific work of federal biologists.
“There is absolutely no question in my mind that the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem deserves and needs to be delisted,” Roady said. “The sooner, the better.”
Conservation groups opposed to the bill were critical of Wednesday’s hearing.
The Montana Wildlife Federation sent a letter to the committee last week raising concerns with the bill. The group — which supported the delisting in 2017 — argues that deficiencies the court found in the management plans should be addressed, and that government agencies involved should be given time to fix those problems.
Nick Gevock, conservation director for the federation and another member of the grizzly advisory council, said in a statement Wednesday that the states were told their management plans weren’t good enough for the bears.
“The top-down approach of this bill ignores the fact that the states gutted their conservation plans as the delisting was moving ahead in 2016, and they were told those plans weren’t sound scientifically or legally,” Gevock said.