Environmental group sues feds over grizzly bear recovery plan

A grizzly bear and her two cubs approach the carcass of a bison in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo)

(CN) The federal government has failed to address grizzly bear recovery in the bear’s historic range in certain Western states, the Center for Biological Diversity said in a lawsuit filed in Montana Thursday.

The government’s management plan for the recovery of grizzly bears – which are designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act – pertains primarily to the northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho, western Washington and Wyoming, but the suit claims the plan neglects other habitats that the government itself has said need to be studied.

The historic range of grizzly bears includes Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada, Oregon and southern Washington, but the government has failed to address recovery of grizzlies in those areas, according to the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for Montana.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental advocacy nonprofit, seeks redress of claims brought under the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act. The plaintiff is asking the court for an order that sets deadlines for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to update the Northern Rockies grizzly bear recovery plan and to evaluate grizzly recovery in areas where suitable habitats exist.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its recovery plan for grizzly bears in 1993. At that time, the service said it was committed to evaluating other potential recovery areas, but the suit claims it failed to do so.

“In 2011, the Service released a five-year status review for the grizzly bear, in which the agency found that the 1993 Recovery Plan was no longer based upon the best available science and needed to be updated,” the complaint states. “The Service specifically noted that the agency must evaluate other areas of the grizzly bear’s historic range in the lower 48 states to determine their habitat suitability for grizzly bear recovery … But the Service never updated the Plan in the manner that the agency itself had said was necessary.”

Conservation of grizzly bears cannot be achieved if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pursues recovery only in the northern Rocky Mountains and the North Cascade Mountains, according to the suit.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 to update its recovery plan for grizzly bears, requesting that the plan be updated to include the Gila/Mogollon complex in Arizona and New Mexico, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Sierra Nevada in California, the Uinta Mountains in Utah and areas of southern Utah.

The service denied the petition, saying that “recovery plans are not rules” under the Administrative Procedures Act, that it had “satisfied statutory responsibilities” for grizzly bear recovery planning, and that it intended to focus only on the six grizzly bear ecosystems in the northern Rocky Mountains.

In 2017, the service announced it was taking grizzlies off the endangered species list in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, but a federal judge in Missoula last fall rejected that delisting attempt after the Crow Indian Tribe and several conservation organizations filed suit.

There are an estimated 1,900 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, and the majority of those bears live in the Yellowstone ecosystem and the northern Rockies ecosystem, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Returning bears to some of these areas is a crucial step toward recovering them under the Endangered Species Act and could potentially triple the grizzly bear population in the lower 48, from fewer than 2,000 today to as many as 6,000 in the future,” the center said in a statement.

“The recovery plan for grizzly bears is more than 25 years old, doesn’t reflect current science and is unambitious,” said the center’s carnivore conservation director Collette Adkins. “Grizzlies now live in just a small fraction of the lands they once roamed, but there’s great habitat in the West where these magnificent animals could once again survive.”

Kristina Akland of Missoula, Montana, is the lead attorney on the case.

A representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.