BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A court ruling that blocked grizzly bear hunts in the U.S. West carries far wider political implications amid a push by Congress for sweeping changes to how imperiled species are managed.
The ruling restored protections for more than 700 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park. It will likely force federal wildlife officials to reconsider their piecemeal approach to restoring bruins across the Northern Rockies.
As wildlife advocates celebrated the ruling, it was quickly seized upon by Republicans as the latest example of supposed flaws in the Endangered Species Act, a 1973 law meant to shield plants and animals from potential extinction.
A House committee on Wednesday was considering changes to the law that critics said would dramatically weaken it.
Bears and wolves in particular are in lawmaker’s sights, although they only acted immediately on wolves.
The Republican-led U.S. House Natural Resources Committee approved a measure from Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy to strip protections from gray wolves across the contiguous U.S. The bill would prohibit court challenges by wildlife advocates.
Federal officials removed protections for wolves in the Great Lakes region in 2011. They were restored by the courts three years later, frustrating states that had been allowing hunts to control the predators’ population.
For grizzly bears, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney wants Congress to reverse U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen’s Monday ruling that blocked hunts in Wyoming and Idaho.
The judge returned bruins in and around Yellowstone National Park to the threatened species list and faulted federal wildlife officials for not giving enough consideration to bear populations that continue to struggle elsewhere in the Northern Rockies.
A spokeswoman for Cheney, Maddy Weast, said Cheney was looking for the best way to advance the measure.
Federal protections for wolves and bears are a sore spot in many rural communities where the animals are found, in part because it limits the ability to control the animals’ numbers through hunting. The grizzly hunts that had been planned in Wyoming and Idaho this fall would have allowed up to 23 of the animals to be killed.
Supporters said that could have helped address rising numbers of grizzly-human conflicts. Bears frequently attack livestock and occasionally people, including a Wyoming hunting guide killed by a pair of grizzlies earlier this month outside Grand Teton National Park.
Defenders of Wildlife attorney Jason Rylander acknowledged grizzly bears and wolves have become a flashpoint for dispute, but said politics should not decide any species’ fate.
“In both the cases of grizzly bears and wolves, work on recovering them in the Lower 48 is not complete,” Rylander said. “We have to decide if we’re willing as a nation to recover them beyond the pockets where they have been resurgent.”
Pressure for change to the Endangered Species Act has increased since President Donald Trump took office, putting both the legislative and executive branches under Republican control.
Under Trump, the U.S. Interior and Commerce departments have proposed administrative changes to the law that would end automatic protections for threatened species and set limits on designating habitat as crucial to recovery.
Attorneys general from 10 states Tuesday demanded that the administration abandon the proposals in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Jonathan Wood with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which has been supportive of efforts to change the law, said Monday’s court ruling on grizzlies “certainly adds to the political appeal for updating and modernizing the act.”
“The Obama administration had no more luck getting the gray wolf or grizzly delisted (from federal protections) than the Bush administration did. This is a consistent problem,” Wood said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, said the Republican proposals comprise a “wish list” for industries that see the law as a barrier to development.