In a huge victory today, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy restored Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Yellowstone's iconic grizzly bears.
Judge Molloy issued his ruling in a case brought by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in the federal district court in Montana. NRDC and six other conservation organizations, represented by Earthjustice, have a similar case pending in the federal district court in Idaho.
In today's ruling, Judge Molloy found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) violated the Endangered Species Act when it removed Yellowstone grizzlies from the endangered species list in 2007. As such, Judge Molloy vacated the 2007 delisting rule and reinstated federal endangered species protections for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
In his decision, Judge Molloy focused on two ways in which FWS's 2007 rule violates the Endangered Species Act: (1) the lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms put in place to protect Yellowstone's grizzlies after the removal of ESA protections and (2) FWS's failure to appropriately consider the loss of whitebark pine seeds as a food source for Yellowstone grizzlies.
Regarding the lack of adequate regulator mechanisms, the court found:
The majority of the regulatory mechanisms relied upon by [FWS] - the Conservation Strategy, Forest Plan amendments, and state plans - depend on guidelines, monitoring, and promises, or good intentions for future action. Such provisions are not adequate regulatory mechanisms when there is no way to enforce them or to ensure that they will occur. Furthermore, the Service does not explain how various other laws and regulations will protect the grizzly bear population. The Service did not comply with the ESA in its consideration of the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms for purposes of delisting.
And as for FWS's failure to consider the negative effects the loss of whitebark pine trees will have on Yellowstone's grizzlies, Judge Molloy concluded:
[FWS] has not articulated a rational connection between the best available science and its conclusion that bears will not be affected by declines in whitebark pine because they are omnivorous. While the Final Rule emphasizes that grizzly bears will be able to adapt to the decline of whitebark pines, the record contains scant evidence for this proposition. . . . The science relied on by [FWS] does not support its conclusion that declines in the availability of whitebark pine will not negatively affect grizzly bears. In fact, much of the cited science directly contradicts [FWS's] conclusions.
The court's ruling underscores the havoc global warming is wreaking on the planet's plants and animals. The tragic demise of whitebark pine trees in the Northern Rockies is primarily caused by mountain pine beetles, which are thriving in a warming climate. And since Yellowstone's grizzlies rely heavily on whitebark pine seeds as a food source, the loss of whitebark pine will have catastrophic effects on the region's grizzly bears.
The great news for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, however, is that Judge Molloy listened to the scientists (who say a major problem for Yellowstone grizzlies is brewing with the loss of whitebark pine) and not FWS (who tried to downplay the loss of whitebark pine by pretty much saying, "No worries -- the grizzlies will adapt").
Lovers of Yellowstone's grizzly bears all over the world should breathe a deep sigh of relief with today's ruling, but the heavy lifting of dealing with the myriad threats facing Mother Grizz still remains.
So while we at NRDC will enjoy a soothing deep breath today, we'll be ready to roll up our sleeves tomorrow and get back to work protecting the legendary grizzlies of Yellowstone.