Fight to Protect Grizzly Bears From Sanctioned Killing Moves to Wyoming Federal Court

On Wednesday, a lawsuit lodged by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club challenging a U.S. Forest Service grazing land authorization was transferred from the District of Columbia to Wyoming. The complaint, filed against the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and their leaders, contends that the approval to kill up to 72 grizzly bears over the ten-year grazing allotment is not a “no jeopardy” conclusion in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as well as the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  

The conservation groups explain that the FWS first listed the grizzly bear as a threatened species in the continental United States, excluding Alaska, in 1975. Reportedly, scientists estimate that there are now less than 2,000 grizzly bears left, occupying only five isolated populations.

The complaint states that the Forest Service authorized continued livestock grazing through 2028 on approximately 170,643 acres of allegedly “prime grizzly bear habitat” within Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. Since 1999, the filing contends, 37 grizzly bears have been killed in or nearby this grazing area.

Approval for the project was based, the plaintiffs contend, on a flawed Biological Report published by the FWS in 2019. According to the complaint, the FWS concluded that “despite the high number of bears that may be killed as a result of the authorized livestock grazing, the Project would not jeopardize grizzly bears.” In so finding, the FWS supposedly relied upon the Forest Service’s commitment to implement specific conservation measures.

The plaintiffs make four arguments in support of their contention that the agencies’ decision is unlawful. They first claim that “[b]ecause FWS must rely upon the livestock permittees to implement several of the conservation measures, FWS cannot presume that the measures are reasonably certain to occur,” and thus, they fail to satisfy the ESA’s no jeopardy mandate. Second, even should the Forest Service and permittees successfully implement the conservation measures, they are “insufficient to protect grizzly bears or minimize conflicts in the project area,” the environmental groups assert.

Third, the plaintiffs argue, a number of the conservation measures are inadequate because they contain “vague language, lack specificity, are mere recommendations, or are subject to agency discretion.” Fourth, the complaint states, the FWS has failed to consider whether the approved extermination figure may jeopardize bear populations “in connection with the increasing mortality rates across the ecosystem.”

The plaintiffs seek to set aside the authorization through an order granting declaratory and injunctive relief. The docket indicates that private parties, including the Upper Green River Cattle Association and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, have sought to intervene. Additional regional environmental groups have joined the plaintiffs’ side, as well.

The two initial complainants are represented by the Center for Biological Diversity.