BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. judge is due to decide Thursday if two Rocky Mountain states can move forward with the first public hunts for grizzly bears in the Lower 48 in almost three decades.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana, last month put on hold for two weeks bear hunts that are scheduled in Idaho and Wyoming.
That order expires Thursday. Hunt opponents asked for a further two-week delay, but Christensen did not immediately rule on the request.
The U.S. Interior Department last year lifted protections on about 700 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park, after government biologists determined the animals have recovered and should be managed by state wildlife agencies.
Wildlife advocates and Native American tribes have sued to restore the bears’ threatened species status.
Up to 23 bears could be killed in the hunts originally scheduled to begin Sept. 1.
Wyoming’s hunt has two parts: Outlying areas with a quota of 12 bears, where hunting was originally scheduled to start Sept. 1, and prime grizzly habitat near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, where up to 10 bears could be killed beginning Saturday.
Hunting in the prime habitat would be stopped if a single female bear were killed.
Idaho’s hunting quota is one bear.
Hunt opponents said in a Wednesday court filing that the looming Saturday opening of hunting around the parks in Wyoming raises the stakes in the court battle over whether the animals should be protected.
Attorneys for the federal government and the states of Idaho and Wyoming opposed the request to extend the delay.
The Yellowstone grizzly population has increased from an estimated 136 bears when they were granted protections in 1975. Bears now come into frequent conflicts with humans, through attacks on domestic livestock and people who encounter bears unexpectedly in the forest.