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End to grizzly bear lawsuit in Idaho raises questions about delisting

A zoomed-in grizzly bear pokes its head out of bushes
Idaho Department of Fish and Game

A lawsuit over the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s killing of three grizzly bears in Eastern Idaho has been settled, with potential implications beyond the state’s borders.

A Montana-based nonprofit, Save the Yellowstone Grizzly, filed suit against Fish and Game and the federal government after the state killed a sow and two cubs near Tetonia in November 2021.

“They were not getting into the garbage. They were not threatening or harassing people,” said Graham Coppes, an attorney representing the advocacy group.

The lawsuit alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act, including claims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) illegally authorized the killing of the sow and one cub, and that Idaho killed the second cub without USFWS approval. The federal agency had a potential relocation site for the cub in mind.

In response, Idaho Fish and Game acknowledged that the federal agency had concerns about killing the bears and had urged the state to pursue non-lethal options. Idaho said it attempted to dart and trap the remaining cub as part of these efforts.

However, the state said that the USFWS “did not make it clear to Idaho that [it] would consider lethal removal of the second young bear to be unauthorized if non-lethal methods were unsuccessful.”

According to Fish and Game, the bears, which had recently been relocated from Gardiner, Mont., were wandering near a rural subdivision and posed a risk to public safety.

Additionally, Idaho filed a counterclaim against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the state shouldn’t be subject to the Endangered Species Act for these bears, which it contends don’t qualify for protection.

“Because they have recovered,” said Kathleen Trever, a deputy attorney general. “And, the entity that is on the list does not meet the definition of a species that is [protected].”

Grizzly bears have been listed as "threatened" under the ESA since 1975. A year ago, the federal government rejected Idaho’s petition to delist grizzly bears across the contiguous U.S., saying it "failed to present any credible scientific" information. At the same time, it moved forward with other petitions to consider delisting in two specific recovery areas, including the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

However, the settlement in this case could effectively open the door to delisting across the lower-48 once again. Under the agreement, the USFWS will revise or remove protections for the bears by Jan. 31, 2026.

“This action will allow the Service to evaluate the listed entity for grizzly bears in the lower 48 within a modern ESA framework,” USFWS spokesperson Joe Szuszwalak wrote in an email, “including consideration of updated science, additional information, and policies enacted since the entity was listed in 1975, including the Service’s 1996 policy for evaluating distinct population segments for listing, delisting, and reclassification under the ESA.”

The process will involve proposed rulemaking and a public comment period.

The fact that USFWS will now reconsider Idaho's delisting request concerns some conservation advocates, including Kristine Akland, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, who was not involved with the case.

“It’s an incredibly unfortunate result of this lawsuit,” Akland said.

Still, Coppes, the attorney for Save the Yellowstone Grizzly, noted that the USFWS could end up making only a minimal change to the ESA listing. It'll still need to follow the science, he said. Also under the settlement, Idaho confirmed that it will seek agreement with the USFWS before lethally-removing any ESA-listed bear.

Meanwhile, federal officials announced plans last week to reintroduce grizzly bears to North Cascades National Park in Washington, and they are considering reintroduction efforts in the Bitterroot Recovery Area, which includes parts of Montana and Idaho.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2024 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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