U.S. officials asked a federal appeals court on Friday to overturn part of a judge’s ruling that blocked the first grizzly bear hunts in the Lower 48 states in almost three decades.
The case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involves more than 700 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. It comes after a judge in Montana restored protections for the animals last September.
U.S. Justice Department attorneys said the judge was wrong to require officials to review the status of grizzlies everywhere before lifting protections for bruins in the Yellowstone region. They also rejected the notion that the bears’ long-term genetic health was in doubt.
But the attorneys did not challenge other concerns raised by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen. That includes whether sufficient safeguards are in place to keep the bears from sliding toward extinction if states take over management of the animals.
The Fish and Wildlife Service “has accepted a remand in this case and is already working on some of the issues identified by the district court,” the attorneys wrote.
Grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 1975 and have slowly regained territory and increased in numbers in the ensuing decades.
If protections are again lifted for the animals, jurisdiction over them would be returned to state officials — and hunting that has been planned in Wyoming and Idaho could proceed.
Christensen’s ruling blocked the two states last year, just as hunting was scheduled to begin. The hunts would have killed up to 23 bears, which state officials maintained was a sustainable figure given the size and expansive range of the animals.
Also Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a report indicating grizzly bear numbers are holding steady in the Yellowstone area and elsewhere in the Northern Rockies.
More than 1,000 of the bruins occupy a vast swath of northwestern Montana that includes Glacier National Park.
The agency said both populations are biologically recovered after being decimated by hunting and trapping early last century. But the bears also experience high death rates amid conflicts with humans and livestock.
About 130 grizzlies roam areas of northern Idaho, northeastern Washington and southern British Columbia.
In his ruling last September that blocked hunting, Christensen said the struggle to return bears to some other areas of the Northern Rockies was not given enough consideration when officials decided to lift protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies.
He noted an estimated 50,000 bears once roamed the contiguous U.S.