Yellowstone Grizzlies Return to the Endangered List

26 Sep

Twenty-three grizzly bears have been permanently spared from a trophy hunt that was scheduled to begin in the greater Yellowstone area on September 1, thanks to a U.S. District Court ruling that found in favor of conservation groups and tribes on Tuesday. But the bigger triumph for grizzly advocates is that the entire population of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears—between 700 and 1,000 individuals—will once again receive federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Judge Dana Christensen ruled that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service acted “arbitrarily and capriciously,” and ultimately exceeded its legal authority, when it delisted the Yellowstone grizzly last year. “By delisting the Greater Yellowstone grizzly without analyzing how delisting would affect the remaining members of the lower-48 grizzly designation the USFWS failed to consider how reduced protections in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would impact the other grizzly populations,” he wrote in the 48-page ruling.

The verdict came after a nearly one-month stay of the highly controversial hunt, while Christensen deliberated on the evidence and arguments presented by a coalition of plaintiffs, led by the Crow Indian Tribe, on whether the grizzly should return to its “threatened” status. Had the hunt begun as scheduled, 22 hunters who drew tags in the Wyoming lottery, and one who drew a tag in Idaho, would have been allowed to bag a bear between September 1 and mid-November. The state of Montana, where Yellowstone’s grizzlies also live, had opted to forego a trophy hunt this season.

“Although this order may have impacts throughout grizzly country and beyond, this case is not about the ethics of hunting and it is not about solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts as a practical or philosophical matter,” wrote Christensen. Central to his ruling, rather, was that the USFWS had not applied the best available science to estimate the size of the population (bears are notoriously hard to count and the USFWS has long struggled with this). Plus, the long-term survival of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly depends on the introduction of new genetic material, which the USFWS did not logically address when it delisted the island-population of bears. Yellowstone’s grizzlies have not yet moved outside of the ecosystem’s boundaries to breed with bears farther north, limited by roads and cities.

The recovery status of the Yellowstone grizzly bear has been a hot-button topic in the conservation world for more than a decade—so much so that this delisting and re-listing debacle isn’t the first of its kind. In 2007, under the Bush administration, the Yellowstone grizzly bear was also unceremoniously kicked off the Endangered Species list. But environmental groups sued the USFWS and won. In that case, the judge found that the USFWS had not adequately considered the potential loss of white bark pine nuts—one of Yellowstone grizzlies’ key foods—from fungus and bark beetles when it removed protections. In 2009, the bears were back on the list. Shortly thereafter, under the Obama Administration, work began once again to remove the bear. In this case, though, Christensen’s ruling unearths some deeper questions about the connectivity of bears.

The Lower 48 grizzly bear was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. But in the early 1990s, wildlife managers divided the bear into five “distinct population segments” for recovery purposes—Yellowstone, Bitterroot, Selkirk/Cabinet-Yaak, the North Cascades, and Northern Continental Divide. Each group had its own conservation plan. The USFWS has since been using these same delineations as a tool for delisting the population groups one by one—something that had never been done before, leading many to question the legality of this method of removing protections. (A District Court ruling last year on the Great Lakes gray wolf population segment set a precedent that this method is indeed illegal.) 

The feds have been keen to hold up the Yellowstone grizzly bear as a national success story—one meant to bolster support for the Endangered Species Act. Without being able to show species recovery, the USFWS risks losing public support—and funding—for the Act and its conservation programs. Environmental groups, meanwhile, believe that the Yellowstone grizzly bear has been caught up in a states’-rights battle, in which states want the power to manage wildlife without federal interference. In Wyoming and Idaho, this means administering a trophy hunt and gaining revenue. In addition, states have expressed concerns over public safety if too many grizzlies are roaming the woods. Earlier this month, a grizzly bear killed a Wyoming hunting guide near Jackson Hole.

But by taking a population-group approach to removing protections, the USFWS hasn’t been focusing as much on connectivity as they should have. Such linkages provide new genetic material that helps populations thrive. Judge Christensen noted there were once 50,000 grizzlies living in America and that it would be “simplistic at best and disingenuous at worst” to not take into account the populations of grizzlies outside of Yellowstone when considering stripping bears of federal protection. Fewer than 1,200 grizzlies remain outside of Yellowstone, and most of those are in the Northern Continental Divide population group in Montana—another island population. Most of these other four groups have not seen improvement since the 1970s, with the North Cascades group believed to have no grizzlies left whatsoever.

Ultimately, this ruling will have profound implications for other grizzly populations and the United States and possibly the Endangered Species Act as a whole. The USFWS had also been preparing to delist the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies. It’s likely this ruling will halt those plans. On the flip side, the Trump Administration has been working to weaken the ESA through a number of House bills over the past year. This ruling could buoy arguments that the ESA isn’t effective at recovering species.

“The Department of the Interior can now go back to the drawing board to hopefully consider what research, such as the long-term impacts of climate change on the population, must be considered to ensure a healthy long-term future for Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies,” Bart Melton, Northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.

In the months ahead, the USFWS can either appeal this decision, or revise its science and strategy, if and when it applies to remove protections from the bears again.

What Exactly Is the Clean Water Rule?

28 Jun

On Tuesday, June 27, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it’s getting ready to roll back the Clean Water Rule. “We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses,” said Scott Pruitt, administrator of the EPA, in a news release that confirmed the EPA’s move to get rid of the rule. The announcement prompted an immediate and harsh response from environmental groups. But what exactly is the Clean Water Rule, and how will rescinding it change things?

What It Is

The rule was introduced in 2015 by the Obama administration. It was meant to clarify the 1972 Clean Water Act, which was hazy about whether some waters—particularly seasonal streams and wetlands—fell under the EPA’s regulatory authority. The Clean Water Rule allowed for all “navigable waters” to be included under the Clean Water Act, extending protection to the drinking sources of nearly a third of the U.S. population.

Why the EPA Is Overturning It

Pruitt’s announcement follows the executive order penned by President Donald Trump at the end of February calling for a review of the regulation. “The EPA’s so-called ‘Waters of the United States’ rule is one of the worst examples of federal regulation, and it has truly run amok, and is one of the rules most strongly opposed by farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers all across our land,” Trump said during the signing. “The EPA decided that navigable waters can mean nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer’s land or anyplace else that they decide.”

That executive order suggested revising the Clean Water Rule to fit within the late Justice Scalia’s interpretation, as the February executive order recommends. If that happens, pollution safeguards would be dismantled for all streams unless they are considered to be “relatively permanent.” This means seasonal or rainwater-dependent streams, as well as some wetlands, would lose protection.

How It Will Change Things

The move won’t technically change current practice in the United States, as Obama’s rule has been stuck in a federal appeals court since October 2015 and was never fully implemented. But that doesn’t mean you won’t see an impact down the road. “It’s going to affect the places that hunters and anglers use,” says Melinda Kassen, interim director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Water Resources. “If you think about going up any mountain canyon and fishing streams that are not in national parks or wilderness areas, those are the sorts of streams where you could now have development—bulldozers pushing soil around, unearthing metals, and potentially putting pollutants into streams.”

Why Outdoor Recreationists Should Care

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, this could mean the loss of pollution protections for almost 60 percent of streams in the lower 48 that don’t flow year-round. To put that in context, both San Francisco and Denver receive more than 58 percent of their drinking water from those streams.

“From an outdoor industry perspective, it’s biting the hand that feeds you to pollute these tiny little streams,” says Kassen. “They don’t necessarily run all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great habitat. Sixty percent of water [in the United States] is in those tiny little headwaters, and even though each one individually doesn’t look so important, if we’re going to have clean water in the bigger streams, that starts with the little ones. If you don’t protect the small streams, you don’t protect the larger system.”

Wetlands span some 110 million acres across the United States, providing critical habitat for fish and wildlife and aiding in filtration of contaminated runoff and groundwater storage. Headwaters and other streams are a big playground, too. A report by the Outdoor Industry Association found that recreationists spend more than $86 billion annually on watersports, which helps explain why 80 percent of voters support the rule. During the EPA public comment period in 2014, more than one million comments were received—87 percent of which were in support.