MISSOULA — A federal judge ruled Monday to return the Yellowstone grizzly bear to the endangered species list, ending a year of uncertainty after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the bear in 2017.

“Bears are now protected again,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney for Western Environmental Law Center, one of the nearly 30 plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the federal government aimed at protecting grizzly bears. 

In an Aug. 30 ruling, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen delayed a planned hunt of up to 22 grizzly bears in Wyoming and Idaho outside the protection of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Christensen extended that delay another two weeks on Sept. 13.

Christensen’s ruling Monday cancels the hunt indefinitely.

Bishop said Christensen was under pressure to rule before the hunt began on Sept. 27. Given that short time frame, Christiansen addressed just three of the approximately 20 issues the plaintiffs raised in the case.

Matt Bishop Credit: Courtesy photo.

“But a win’s a win,” Bishop said. “I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Bishop said he wouldn’t be surprised if the federal government, or one of the intervening parties, appealed the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The key argument plaintiffs presented during oral argument in August was that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service illegally delisted the Greater Yellowstone area’s 690 grizzlies without addressing the impact that decision would have on the survival of the species in its few other habitats in the Lower 48.

“The recovery of those populations depends heavily on inter-population connectivity and genetic exchange. Under the Trump administration’s plan, dispersing grizzlies essential to species recovery would have to pass through a killing zone outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks where Wyoming and Idaho rushed to approve trophy hunts,” a Western Environmental Law Center press release stated Monday.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Jennifer Strickland said in a statement that that Christensen’s ruling means management of grizzly bears returns to the federal government.

“We will work with the state and tribes to ensure that this transition proceeds in accordance with the court’s order,” Strickland said.

Hunter Pauli

Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.You can follow Hunter on Twitter.