By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday restored federal protections to grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, abiding by a court ruling last year that removal of the bears' threatened status violated the Endangered Species Act.
Reinstatement of Yellowstone-area grizzlies to the U.S. threatened species list capped years of legal wrangling over one of the most iconic animals roaming a region of the Northern Rockies that encompasses parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
The Trump administration's decision to “de-list” the Yellowstone grizzly, formally proposed in 2016 during the Obama era, was based on federal wildlife managers' findings that the bear's numbers had sufficiently rebounded in recent decades and no longer warranted federal safeguards.
The move, welcomed by big-game hunters and ranchers, applied to about 700 bears in the region, and led to plans for the first licensed trophy hunts for grizzlies in areas adjacent to Yellowstone park in more than 40 years.
A number of environmental groups and Native American tribes then sued in federal court seeking to overturn the decision, arguing that grizzly populations could plunge again without protection. They cited pressures that hunting and encroaching human development posed to a species that is slow to reproduce.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana, sided with the groups, ruling last September that the agency had overstepped its authority and had failed to apply the best available science in its evaluation, including ongoing threats to the bears.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement on Tuesday that it had employed the “best scientific and commercial data” when it de-listed the Yellowstone grizzlies, which it said had experienced robust population growth, but that it was complying with the judge’s order.
“There is widespread public support for grizzly bear conservation, and the service continues to collaborate with state, federal, non-governmental, and tribal partners to research, monitor, and manage the iconic species and its habitats,” the agency said in a statement.
Fewer than 2,000 grizzlies are estimated to inhabit the Lower 48 states, and the species had remained under federal protection in five other regions outside of Yellowstone.
Ranchers, who argue that a rebounding grizzly population poses a threat to livestock, are a powerful political constituency in the American West.
Wyoming’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Liz Cheney, described Tuesday's action as the "result of excessive litigation pursued by radical environmentalists intent on destroying our Western way of life.”
Cheney said she has introduced legislation to restore the de-listing by an act of Congress, which would move grizzly management back to the state.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman & Simon Cameron-Moore)