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Hageman, state officials tout circumventing Endangered Species Act

Congress is attempting to delist populations of grizzly bears near Yellowstone and Glacier parks and wolves across their range in the Lower 48.

A grizzly bear in Northwest Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park. (National Park Service/C.J. Adams)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A Wyoming official testified this week that he supported using “whatever means is necessary” to obtain management authority over the Yellowstone area’s federally protected grizzly bears. 

Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, made the remark while speaking in support of U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman’s H.R. 1245 – Grizzly bear state management act of 2023. The measure would require federal wildlife managers to reinstate a five-year-old grizzly bear delisting decision that was overturned in court — and it would prohibit future legal challenges.

“The best way to celebrate the success [of grizzly recovery] is to delist and return management to the states and the tribes where it belongs  — and to do so by whatever means is necessary,” Nesvik told a House Committee on Natural Resources’ subcommittee. “The bill you are considering today would certainly achieve the conservation outcome we feel is best for the management of grizzly bears and the people of our state.” 

Earlier, Hageman charged that delisting the 1,000-plus grizzlies that dwell in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is warranted under the Endangered Species Act, and that it wasn’t fair to make the states go through a third delisting effort. The first two attempts, in 2007 and 2017, were successful before being overturned in federal court.

“Meanwhile, environmental litigants have been holding farmers, ranchers and the government hostage to their demands and for the purpose of protecting their own pocketbooks,” Hageman said. “Wyoming is done waiting on the federal government when the science has said for a long time that it’s time to act.” 

Simultaneous to pursuing legislation that would go around the ESA, the state successfully petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider grizzly delisting through its usual avenues. The state’s pitch was received favorably, and the agency is in the process of completing a “comprehensive status review,” which would precede a proposed and final delisting rule — a process that could take years to unfold.

U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman at a 2022 rally for her candidacy attended by Donald Trump, Jr. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Western lawmakers pressed two other bills at the Thursday hearing that would circumvent the Endangered Species Act. 

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) touted H.R. 764 – Trust the science act, which would reinstate federal wildlife officials’ 2020 decision to delist gray wolves throughout the Lower 48. Currently wolves are only delisted and managed by the states in the Northern Rockies, where Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have authority and hold hunts. State jurisdiction might not last, however: Petitions that seek relisting Northern Rockies wolves were initially successful, and the states are awaiting the results of a comprehensive status review that will dictate what the Fish and Wildlife Service does next. 

The third effort to go around the ESA discussed in the committee comes from U.S. Rep. Matt Rosedale (R-Montana), whose bill, cosponsored by Hageman, would direct the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem’s 1,000-plus grizzly bears. 

Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Steve Guertin testified in opposition to the spate of bills that go around the ESA. The 50-year-old conservation law demands that decision-makers heed the best-available science, he noted.

“It’s not uncommon for the Service’s listing or delisting rules to be challenged in court,” Guertin said. “The judicial systems become part of the body of law interpreting the ESA, and the [Fish and Wildlife] Service adjusts its approach accordingly.” 

The ESA, which has kept 99% of listed species from going extinct, was broadly supported upon its inception in 1973. Wyoming’s congressional delegation all supported it: U.S. Sen. Clifford Hansen, a Republican, and U.S. Sen. Gale McGee and U.S. Rep. Teno Roncalio, both Democrats. 

Nowadays, the ESA is frequently under attack, especially by members of the Republican Party. The federal budget bill contained a rider in 2011 that returned Montana and Idaho wolves to state management. Congress has also included provisions in spending bills that prohibit spending money on listing the greater sage grouse, a struggling species whose stronghold is Wyoming. 

Tim Preso, a managing attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, told WyoFile he finds attempts by Congress to legislate around the ESA “troublesome.” 

“With these delisting actions, the history has been — it’s not just based on speculation — that the states don’t step in to be guardians,” Preso said. “They’ve stepped in to ramp up the persecution [of formerly protected species] and that’s why the Endangered Species Act is so important for species like these.” 

Wyoming’s petition, if successful, would likely use hunting to reduce the population of Yellowstone-region grizzly bears from 1,069 to 932.

Chris Servheen, a former Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator, testified on Thursday that he was the leading proponent of grizzly delisting during the first attempt. Since then, he changed his tune as a result of state legislatures passing bills that promote “aggressive, indiscriminate wildlife killing methods into grizzly bear habitat.” 

“The lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms [protecting grizzlies and wolves] is due to political interference in the management of wildlife,” Servheen said. 

Wyoming Game and Fish’s director took issue with Servheen’s assessment.  

“I would certainly disagree,” Nesvik testified. “We have gone to great lengths to ensure that we have laws and regulations on the books that very conservatively manage grizzly bears within the core of their suitable habitat.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.