Three wildlife groups are suing the federal government over its failure to consider how grizzly populations in Montana have been affected by intentional bear removal, particularly in contact lanes outside major recovery areas.
On Wednesday, three organizations — WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project and Trap Free Montana — sued the USDA Wildlife Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula federal district court for allowing wildlife services to continue with planned removals of grizzly bears, which are still protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Wildlife Services provides livestock producers with assistance in controlling predators, usually through lethal means although Wildlife Services also uses non-lethal techniques.
In 2021, Wildlife Services willfully killed more than 400,000 wild animals, including smaller species like bobcats, foxes, beavers, and river otters. Through trapping, he also accidentally killed nearly 2,800 animals, according to the USDA reports.
While Wildlife Services works for the Department of Agriculture, the US Fish and Wildlife Service falls under the Department of the Interior, and the two departments have very different missions, adding to the tension.
With species not federally protected, wildlife services can operate on their own and unhindered, though they receive additional funding to kill predators from the Montana Department of Livestock, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Montana Sportsman Fish and Wildlife Service. The Montana Department of Livestock said it would not be able to “absorb the financial burden” of the Wildlife Service’s predator removal program if the program was abandoned, according to court records.
Because grizzly bears are still protected, Wildlife Services and Montana Fish and Wildlife & Parks must work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to kill or move an attention-grabbing grizzly bear. Under a specific section of the Endangered Species Act – Section 4(d) – wildlife services and others can kill or move – actions to which the legal term “takes” – only bears that have been positively associated with the killing of livestock or that present a demonstrable threat for human safety.
However, in March 2020, during the Trump administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued a memo allowing wildlife services to use live traps and relocate bears preemptively in areas where they could come into conflict with humans. The lawsuit says the 2020 warrant allows activities not permitted in Section 4(d) because the bears were not involved in a dispute.
The lawsuit adds that these precautionary takedowns can intercept bears making their way between recovery areas. If bears cannot migrate between regions, it threatens the overall survival of the species.
“The best available science reveals a lack of communication and genetic exchange between grizzly bears in recovery areas in Montana, and the absence of bears from Bitterroots continues to pose a threat to the long-term recovery of the species in the lower 48 states,” Matthew said. Bishop, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center representing the groups. “But agencies don’t take this into account before killing and removing dispersed bears.”
In 2021, the US Fish and Wildlife Service wrote a species status assessment for grizzly bears. Among other things, the evaluation said contact between recovery areas is important for maintaining species viability because it will prevent inbreeding between smaller populations in recovery areas.
The USFWS assessment also identified human-caused deaths, including administrative removals in response to conflicts of interest for humans and livestock, as a threat to grizzly bears and an impediment to long-term viability and recovery.
Wildlife Services has estimated that it will take no more than 21 intentional grizzly bears in Montana per year within its three active recovery areas, but does not record any estimate of bears taken outside of recovery areas. It also estimates that no more than five bears will be accidentally taken in a 20-year period.
In May 2021, when Wildlife Services issued a new determination approving a predator removal program in Montana, its environmental assessment did not include information from the USFWS species survival assessment and only considered Wildlife Service actions within grizzly recovery areas. The lawsuit said grizzly bears that Wildlife Services kills or remove between recovery areas should be considered and reported.
In addition, the lawsuit says, Wildlife Services used a biological assessment published in 2010, which found that Wildlife Services’ predator control activities were likely to negatively affect grizzly bears. Although Wildlife Services has since added additional information, the biological assessment only addresses the accidental taking of grizzly bears, not the intentional increase that is occurring now.
In 2017 and 2018, Wildlife Services intentionally killed or removed 11 grizzly bears each year. The number increased to 16 gray hairs in 2019, according to court documents.
Glazier and FWP biologists shot seven of these bears after FWP District 4 supervisor Gary Bertellotti approved the guns for the first time. Bertlotti said during the meeting that it is sometimes difficult to establish which bear was responsible.
Because of this, the suit argues that Wildlife Services should conduct a more intensive environmental impact statement for its predator removal program, rather than an environmental assessment.