Environmental Groups Sue Government over Grizzly Bear Recovery Project

Environmental conservation organizations are suing the government for failure to state a final rule on a proposed grizzly bear recovery project in the Bitterroot area of Idaho and Montana. 

Defendants, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Secretary of the Interior, issued a final rule in November 2000 to establish a nonessential, experimental population of grizzly bears in the Bitterroot area, the complaint said. Historically, the grizzly bear was a widespread inhabitant of the Bitterroot Mountains, with Idaho supporting a population of about 4,300. Hunting eventually led to their decimation, and the area was marked as a potential grizzly bear recovery area in 1982 by USFWS, court documents state. 

Under the rule issued in 2000, a minimum of 25 grizzly bears from Canada and other parts of the United States were to be fitted with radio collars and introduced into the Bitterroot environment over the course of five years. However, less than a year later, USFWS issued a proposed rule to scrap the recovery plan. After receipt and review of public comments on the action, the organization was to make a final rule on the decision. Plaintiffs the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council claim that USFWS never made a final rule, violating the Environmental Protection Agency’s Administrative Procedure Act by failing to make a decision in a timely manner. 

“While there is no per se rule regarding how long a delay must be in order to constitute ‘unreasonable delay,’ no court has ever condoned a 20-year delay in issuing a final rule in notice-and-comment rulemaking under the APA once a proposed rule has been issued,” the lawsuit states. 

Plaintiffs are also requesting defendants update the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed action, as grizzly bears have been sited in the Bitterroot area since the 2000 rule was issued. Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Policy Act, if significant new circumstances or information relevant to the environmental concerns of the proposed action becomes known, the agency must prepare a supplemental EIS. 

“Recovery of the Bitterroot grizzly is the lynchpin to recovery and delisting of the lower-48 States grizzly population. Over 20 years have passed since the USFWS issued its final EIS on Bitterroot grizzly recovery, yet the agency has taken no action to implement its own decision, rule, and regulation,” plaintiffs state. “In light of dramatically changing circumstances on the ground, the agency can no longer sit on its hands. The agency must prepare a comprehensive plan for Bitterroot grizzly recovery based on the best available science, and with full public participation. The completion of a supplemental EIS, and the issuance of a new record of decision and final rule, is the most logical, effective, efficient, and lawful manner to accomplish this task.”

Plaintiffs are represented by the Public Interest Defense Center PC and Bechtold Law Firm.