A Montana federal district court judge cut short a plan by biologists across a three-state region to allow a grizzly bear hunt as part of a management program.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Billings, Mont., on Monday ordered that federal protections be restored for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes portions of southeastern Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
The order — after an extensive collaboration by game departments to allow hunting in the three states — was disappointing, said Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore.
“Putting the Yellowstone grizzly population back on the endangered species list is a setback for grizzly bear conservation,” Moore said.
Wyoming and Idaho had issued tags that would allow hunters, if they were successful, to kill up to 23 bears this fall, but Christensen blocked the hunts in a ruling that he noted was not about hunting ethics. Montana had already pulled out of a planned hunt.
Christensen was under pressure from Indian tribes and environmental groups that sued the government last year when protections were at first lifted after decades of work by biologists to strengthen populations of the bear in the northern Rockies.
He questioned in his ruling if federal officials and biologists considered the long-term recovery of the bears outside Yellowstone National Park.
The hunt would have been the first in the lower 48 states since 1991. The last Idaho hunt was in 1946, according to Idaho Fish and Game.
Moore said the judge’s decision was a step backward and mirrored the disappointment of others who have called grizzly bear recovery in the northern Rockies a success story.
“Idaho wildlife managers have worked for decades with local communities, our sister states and federal agencies to build a healthy Yellowstone population. Given the social and scientific investment we’ve made in grizzly bear recovery, this ruling is a big disappointment. We can’t reconcile this court outcome with the conservation success so many worked hard to achieve,” Moore said.
Idaho Fish and Game issued one grizzly bear tag to an Idaho hunter in July. That hunt has been canceled. The rest of the tags went to Wyoming hunters. Grizzly bears in North Idaho were not part of the proposed hunt area.
Game managers and hunting advocates purport grizzlies have recovered enough to pose a concern for humans and livestock in the Rockies.
An estimated 718 bears live in the region around Yellowstone, one of two remaining strongholds for grizzlies that include Montana’s Glacier National Park.