Courtrooms are critical habitat for grizzly bears

September 13, 2023 4:44 am

A hand-tinted postcard from grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park circa 1910.

Grizzlies wouldn’t be roaming the greater Yellowstone ecosystem if it wasn’t for plentiful food, and the vast wildlands of the national park that offer protections from traps, bullets, chainsaws and bulldozers.

But one of the most important places for grizzlies in recent decades has been the federal courthouse.

I recently reviewed every lawsuit filed on behalf of grizzlies bears during the past 30 years and it’s clear that litigation has played a pivotal role in protecting these bruins under the Endangered Species Act, ensuring they survive and thrive.

My research, published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Conservation Science, found that court challenges have been crucial in protecting grizzly bear habitat, shielding them from excessive logging and other destructive activities, and keeping them out of gun sights. Not every lawsuit has been successful but there’s no question that the lives of grizzlies have been served, and saved, by legal action.

Far too often, anti-wildlife forces cynically portray lawsuits to protect endangered species like Yellowstone grizzly bears as some kind of bogeyman or as frivolous exercises to gum up bureaucratic systems. But in reality, litigation has frequently been the only tool to make sure the government and others follow the law and do what’s required to protect species on the edge of extinction.

The history of the grizzly bear’s survival in the United States demonstrates why this is so important.

Grizzlies once roamed across the entirety of the United States west of the Mississippi. Scientists estimate there were upwards of 50,000 bears spread across 18 states. But a frenzy of killing — including government-funded extermination programs — cut deeply into their numbers. Much of their habitat was also plowed under and paved over. Soon, there were fewer than 1,000 left. Those who remained survived on just 2% of their historic range in the continental U.S.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 saved the grizzly bear from being wiped off the map in the lower 48 states and has contributed to substantial recovery of populations in and around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Yet, there are still only about 2,000 grizzly bears, occupying just 6% of their historic range.

And grizzly bears continue to struggle in the two other areas where they survive. In Montana’s Cabinet Mountains and Yaak Valley, and in the Selkirk Mountains in northwestern Idaho, bear populations have hovered around 50 individuals, which is not much more than when they were protected nearly five decades ago. The primary culprit is too many roads and everything that goes along with them — habitat destruction, poaching, noise disturbance and vehicles that collide with bears.

Two other areas identified as targets for bear recovery — the North Cascades in Washington and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho and Montana — have few to no bears despite the fact that the bear’s recovery plan called for restoring populations in these areas years ago.

Lawsuits filed on behalf of the grizzly bear have sought to address these deficiencies in grizzly bear recovery. The suits that were successful in maintaining Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears, for example, showed that increased numbers in a single, isolated population didn’t mean that grizzly bears had recovered across the lower 48 states or even across the Northern Rockies. With protections in place, Yellowstone grizzly bears have increased in numbers and expanded their range.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed during the last few decades to stop logging, mining, road building, livestock grazing and other destructive projects in grizzly bear habitat. Recently the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, stopped two massive timber sales in the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana that threatened the endangered Cabinet-Yaak population of bears.

The U.S. Forest Service wanted to clearcut hundreds of acres of old forest and construct miles of new roads, which would have had devastating consequences for the grizzly bears.

When it passed the Endangered Species Act 50 years ago, Congress recognized that implementing the law would be difficult for agencies like the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service because of the likelihood of direct conflicts with powerful special interests. As an antidote, a provision was included in the law that allows private citizens to go to court on behalf of species like bears that can’t speak for themselves.

It’s impossible to make amends for all the destruction that people have inflicted on grizzlies and other species. But I like to think that Yellowstone grizzlies are grateful for that provision and the protection the Endangered Species Act has provided over the years. Even if they’ve never seen the inside of a courtroom.

Noah Greenwald is director of the Endangered Species program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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Noah Greenwald
Noah Greenwald

Noah Greenwald is director of the Endangered Species program at the Center for Biological Diversity.