The state of Wyoming is suing the Department of the Interior (DOI) after the federal agency failed to decide whether or not it will remove grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List (ESL). The lawsuit stems from a missed deadline on earlier petitions that requested state-level management for grizzly bear populations in the northern Rocky Mountains. Some proponents of grizzly bear delisting say the bears are fully recovered and should be hunted—like other large big game species in the West.
“Wyoming’s grizzly bear numbers have not only greatly increased but have exceeded population goals for years, and it’s time for the delisting process to move forward,” Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon said in a recent press release announcing the lawsuit. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has missed the required 12-month determination deadline, and it’s time for the agency to be held accountable.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) accepted petitions from Wyoming and Montana to consider delisting the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems (NCDE). A similar petition from Idaho to delist its grizzly bear population was denied.
The GYE is centered around Yellowstone National Park—the bulk of which lies in northwestern Wyoming. The NCDE encompasses and surrounds Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. Grizzly bear populations extend well beyond the boundaries of both National Parks. And biologists estimate their overall numbers at or above 2,000 individual bears in the Lower 48.
Back in February, the USFWS acknowledged that the extensive environmental studies submitted by both Montana and Wyoming along with their petitions to delist grizzlies contained “credible information” about the status of grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48—and the agency committed to considering a delisting rule based on that documentation. Because the state’s petitions were initially submitted in February 2022, the USFWS is now 18 months behind schedule on its delisting determination.
“Wyoming has taken great strides to recover grizzly bears to the point where their management should be returned to the state,” Jess Johnson, Government Affairs Director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, the state’s oldest conservation and hunting advocacy group, tells Field & Stream. “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should issue a rule to that effect, but we know that that rule will be litigated. To have the best shot at a durable delisting, the Service needs to be diligent and thoughtful. Unfortunately, all that takes time—but they’re taking more time than the statute gives them.”
Wyoming’s lawsuit is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of grizzly bear conservation in the West. The bears were first put on the ESL in 1975 after they were nearly eradicated from their historic range. In 2007, bear populations began to show signs of recovery, and administrative attempts to delist the species were made. A seesaw of administrative rules and court decisions have been made since then, but the bears remain federally protected throughout their entire Lower 48 range.
Back in July 2017, the USFWS decided to remove grizzly bears in the GYE from the Endangered Species List. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department established a grizzly bear hunting season and awarded tags to prospective hunters after that ruling was issued. But it was quickly overturned after environmental groups sued the USFWS in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A recent bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, sponsored by Wyoming Congresswoman Harriet Hageman, would delist GYE grizzlies once again and ensure that the decision could no longer be subject to litigation. That bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee last month.