Gordon submits petition to delist GYE grizzlies from Endangered Species Act

A grizzly bear on a carcass in the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park in March 2016. (Jim Peaco/NPS)

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon on Tuesday announced the submission of a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to remove Yellowstone grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List.

The petition, filed Jan. 11, asserts that grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) have, by all measures, been fully recovered since 2003.

“Grizzly bears in the GYE are fully recovered and their management is now best entrusted to the experienced and capable institutions of the states,” Gordon said in a statement. “After all, Wyoming has invested more than $52 million and dedicated countless hours of Game and Fish expertise to reach this point. We’re optimistic the (FWS) will view the petition favorably, and we look forward to working with them on delisting.”

The petition was made possible through a cooperative effort between Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho where each separately approved a modified Tri-State Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that asserted GYE grizzlies have grown beyond the edges of their biological and socially suitable range.

At the time of the MOA, the GYE grizzly population numbered more than 1,000 bears, which was reportedly far beyond the scientific requirements for a recovered, viable population, according to a Nov. 30, 2021, release from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD).

The MOA referenced concerns over maintaining the GYE bear’s long-term genetic health and contained an explicit commitment to provide for the translocation of bears into the population, as needed, to maintain genetic diversity, per WGFD.

“This is an extraordinary and monumental success story for species recovery and should be celebrated,” Gordon said on Jan. 11. “The GYE grizzly bear is ready to join the ranks of the bald eagle, American alligator, peregrine falcon, and brown pelican as receiving proper recognition as a thriving, recovered, and stable species.”

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There is no biological or legal reason to keep the GYE grizzly listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Gordon continued.

The FWS has 90 days to review the petition at which time it can be approved for additional review or denied. If granted additional review, the agency can take up to a year to further analyze Wyoming’s request and come to a final decision.

The petition is the latest move in a multi-year saga to delist GYE grizzlies and move them under state management that began in 2017 when the animals were, momentarily removed from under the protective umbrella of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the second time since 2007.

Shortly thereafter, the WGFD began talks concerning the future management of a growing grizzly population through various means, including a potential hunting season, with the number of bear-human conflicts reportedly on the rise.

The hunting season was approved by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and former Wyoming Governor Matt Mead in 2018 amid protests by environmentalists and animal advocates.

The hunt was ultimately stopped by a federal judge in Montana who issued a temporary restraining order preventing Wyoming from proceeding with its approved plan.

In September 2018, a federal judge ultimately overturned the decision to remove the GYE grizzly from the ESA, stating that the federal officials failed to apply the best available science to reach an accommodation with Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

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The judge ruled that researchers failed to appropriately analyze the potential impacts that delisting the GYE grizzlies would have on other populations across the Midwest.

The decision sparked a debate within the U.S. Congress, with Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) introducing the Grizzly Bear State Management Act, which was not approved, directing the U.S. Department of the interior to de-list the GYE grizzly population once again.

The following year, in 2019, Cheney joined hands with former Sen. Mike Enzi to reintroduce a similar act, who stated that he had been working on the issue for over 20 years, which is how long it has been known that the GYE grizzly population has been fully recovered.

Weeks beforehand, the Wyoming Legislature tossed aside the federal ruling and passed a bill, Senate File 93, that placed grizzly hunts back on the table, claiming that the ruling robbed the state of any authority to make grizzly management decisions while at the same time, leaving the state to contend with the species’ management costs.

“The district court’s order impedes the State of Wyoming’s ability to protect the safety of its citizens, particularly in light of grizzly attacks on workers and other citizens and tourists of the state,” the bill stated.

The news spurred a lawsuit from several environmentalist groups, some of which had a hand to play in the decision to stay Wyoming grizzly hunts in 2018, who challenged the new law that authorized the hunts regardless of the federal ruling.

At least one group in 2019 accused Wyoming of being stuck in a “19th Century mindset in which the response to every situation is to kill off native predators” while another said that the state had continually made it clear that it wishes to offer sport hunting of grizzlies and would go so far as to “defy federal law to cater to the bloodlust of trophy hunters.”