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Conservationists allege Yellowstone-area grazing plan threatens grizzly recovery

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A grizzly bear walks above the Gardner River near the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY JACOB W. FRANK / NPS

Nine conservation orgs are asking a Missoula court to overturn the U.S. Forest Service’s East Paradise decision involving six grazing allotments north of Yellowstone National Park.

By Amanda Eggert MONTANA FREE PRESS

A coalition of environmental groups filed suit against the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday over a Paradise Valley grazing plan that they argue threatens grizzly bear recovery. 

Nine regional and national conservation organizations say the Forest Service’s decision to continue or expand livestock grazing in six allotments along the eastern end of Paradise Valley will lead to conflicts as bears inevitably attack livestock to replace diminishing sources of food like whitebark pine nuts and cutthroat trout.

In an email to Montana Free Press, Custer Gallatin National Forest officials countered that there has been “little to no” conflict between livestock and bears in this area and say they consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to adopting the grazing plan, as required by the Endangered Species Act. 

Grizzly bears received protections under the act in 1975. Their current population in the Lower 48 is approaching 2,000 bears, including 727 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Between 2002 and 2020, 128 Yellowstone-area grizzly bears were killed by wildlife managers due to livestock-related conflicts. Such management actions are “a leading cause of death” for the area’s grizzly population, Jocelyn Leroux, Western Watershed Project’s Montana and Washington director, said in a release announcing the lawsuit. 

“Expanded grazing in these allotments is irresponsible and will stymie connectivity between the grizzlies of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and those of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem,” Leroux said. “A better choice would be to keep livestock out of public lands grizzly habitat entirely.”

Most of the grizzly bears in the Lower 48 are located within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. COURTESY OF U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

Eight other environmental non-profits, including Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Native Ecosystems Council and Gallatin Wildlife Association, brought the lawsuit. Defendants include U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore and his agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams and her agency, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and her agency.

At issue is the East Paradise grazing decision, which involves grazing allotments that span nearly 21,000 acres of land stretching from south of Emigrant to south of Livingston, including parts of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and the North Absaroka Roadless Area. Under the East Paradise decision, three of the six allotments — Suce Creek, Mill Creek and Sixmile South — will be kept in vacant status, meaning no grazing is currently permitted but could be in the future.

Grazing will be allowed from June 1 to October 15 in the other three allotments, an extended season relative to previous permits. The allotments that will continue to be grazed are Elbow, Pine Creek and Sixmile North. The size of the latter allotment has also been increased by 1,300 acres, an area that is mostly located within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear recovery zone.

The plaintiffs argue that the Forest Service recognized the potential for bear-livestock conflict in its environmental analysis of the East Paradise proposal, but they say the agency relied on an outdated livestock standard from 1998 to move forward with the decision rather than incorporating the best available current science.

The East Paradize proposal involves six grazing allotments on the eastern edge of Paradise Valley. COURTESY OF U.S. FOREST SERVICE

The 1998 baseline directs land managers not to increase the number of acres approved for livestock grazing within the Greater Yellowstone recovery zone beyond 1998 levels and to retire rather than renew any sheep grazing permits. 

The plaintiffs say that management approach doesn’t account for declining availability of natural food sources like whitebark pine nuts and cutthroat trout, potentially driving bears to feed instead on livestock, which results in wildlife managers euthanizing bears. They also argue that USFWS erred by failing to address that possibility when it consulted with the Forest Service on the proposal.

In an emailed statement, Custer Gallatin National Forest spokesperson Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan said the Forest Service engaged USFWS in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and USFWS concurred with the Forest Service’s assessment in the Biological Opinion attached to the decision.

“Livestock grazing is an appropriate use of National Forest System Lands. The environmental analysis for the East Paradise Project supports this use in this area,” Leuschen-Lonergan continued. “Livestock grazing on public lands does have the potential to result in conflict as was disclosed in the environmental analysis, however, in this area there has been little to no conflict between livestock and bears.”

USFWS did not respond to Montana Free Press’ request for comment by press time Monday afternoon.

In addition to scrutinizing the East Paradise proposal, plaintiffs also asserted in their complaint that the Forest Service’s approach “establishes a dangerous precedent for future livestock grazing and other National Forest Projects in the region.”

The environmental groups are asking the federal district court in Missoula to scrap the East Paradise proposal and rule that the environmental analysis behind it is deficient. They’re also asking the court to order a halt to any grazing authorized under the East Paradise decision and direct defendants to conduct additional analysis in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

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