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Judge halts first grizzly hunts in decades two days before their start

A grizzly bear with a cub in Yellowstone National Park. MUST CREDIT: Frank van Manen/USGS.

A federal judge on Thursday blocked grizzly bear hunts outside Yellowstone National Park two days before their start, postponing them for 14 days as he deliberates over lawsuits challenging the Trump administration's removal of endangered species protections for the animals.

In an order issued after a hearing in Missoula, Montana, U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen said attorneys for conservation and tribal groups had demonstrated that going ahead with the hunt could cause "irreparable harm" to Yellowstone-area grizzlies.

"The threat of death to individual grizzly bears posed by the scheduled hunt is sufficient" to warrant a delay, he wrote.

The order amounted to a temporary reprieve for as many as 23 Yellowstone-area bears that could be killed in the first grizzly hunts in the Lower 48 in more than four decades. The majority are to be hunted outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming, which approved the killing of up to 22 bears; Idaho set its quota at one male grizzly.

"It's a great relief for us, but also for all the people for whom these grizzly bears really are irreplaceable," said Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents several parties in one of a half-dozen lawsuits.

The federal government removed protections from grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2017, following what Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called "one of America's great conservation successes, the culmination of decades of hard work."

All U.S. grizzlies outside Alaska were listed as threatened in 1975, by which point more than a century of hunting and extermination had left as few as 136 in the Yellowstone area. About 700 of the bears now roam the park and a widening expanse outside it, according to government data, though federal biologists say the true population might be closer to 1,000.

"Bears are doing great," Coby Howell, a Justice Department attorney, told Christensen at the hearing, adding that the animals face "no chance of extinction."

But several lawsuits filed by conservation organizations dispute the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's assessment that the grizzly population has recovered. They say the bears are increasingly imperiled by threats from humans as they range farther outside Yellowstone, where key food sources have declined, and that removing protections will prevent the area's grizzlies from connecting with other bears farther north, leaving them genetically isolated.

Native American tribes, which view grizzlies as sacred, have challenged the delisting over what they call a violation of their religious freedom.

But Christensen focused several questions Thursday on a more technical argument put forth by some plaintiffs, who said the government erred when delisting the Yellowstone population without considering the impact of 1,100 or so other grizzlies in the Lower 48, which remain federally protected.

In a case involving gray wolves, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last summer that consideration for the overall species is required when removing protections for a regional population.

Christensen questioned whether the government had adequately considered how delisting Yellowstone grizzlies could affect its ability to link up with other bears. "To me, it seems a fundamental concept, and that's the issue of connectivity," he said in court Thursday.

Howell, the government attorney, emphasized that the remaining grizzlies would retain protections, and said delisting the Yellowstone population would free up resources to focus on those other bears.

Thursday's hearing and restraining order were the latest twists in years of legal wrangling over an iconic species of the West. Federal officials first removed protections for the grizzlies in 2007, when some 580 of the bears lived in and around Yellowstone. That decision was later overturned in federal court, which ruled that the government's science did not support the idea that the bears could thrive in light of a climate-change caused loss of white bark pine trees, whose nuts they eat.

Federal scientists who have monitored the bears since say their data show that the lack of white bark pine hasn't caused declines in population or reproduction, and that the animals have been able to adapt to new foods. Conservationists counter that the bears have switched to meat from livestock and remains left by elk hunters, leading to rising human-caused deaths.

The government's position is backed by the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, as well as Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, which had long sought to manage the bears. Federal and state officials say that hunts, which must adhere to mortality limits set forth in conservation plans, will not threaten the overall population and might help it by increasing tolerance for the predators among ranchers and other residents concerned about their spread.

But the planned hunt in Wyoming - the first since 1974 - has been controversial. Activists sought to prevent the deaths of bears by applying for the small number of available hunting licenses, and they paid for billboards featuring grizzlies and the phrase "I am not a trophy" near the resort town of Jackson, Wyoming.

More than 7,300 people applied for hunting tags in the state, 12 of which have been issued so far. Renny MacKay, a spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said his agency began calling hunters Thursday night to inform them that the hunt had been suspended.

About 60 hunt opponents gathered outside the courthouse on Thursday morning, some holding signs bearing the same image as on the billboards.

"This isn't just some sort of technical, legal argument about an animal," said Montana resident and longtime grizzly advocate Louisa Willcox. "This is about the heart of wild nature in the northern Rockies."

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This article was written by Karin Brulliard and Nick Mott, reporters for The Washington Post.

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