Nine conservation organizations filed a lawsuit today to challenge the U.S. Forest Service’s 2021 decision to authorize expanded livestock grazing on six allotments on the east side of Montana’s Paradise Valley. The allotments lie just north of Yellowstone National Park in occupied grizzly bear habitat.
Several of the allotments are located in designated grizzly recovery zones and within important habitat linkages for bears in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service has expanded both the livestock grazing area and season, putting the bears at higher risk of being killed in response to conflict with cattle operations. Greater grizzly bear mortality in areas on the cusp of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will slow the bears’ recovery and keep the Yellowstone grizzly population isolated. Scientists predict that long-term isolation of Yellowstone grizzlies will likely decrease their genetic diversity, which would harm the population’s health and reproductive success.
In addition to challenging the Forest Service’s decision, the suit also names the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a defendant for using out-of-date scientific information and failing to adequately consider the impacts of the grazing decision on grizzly bears.
“The best available science reveals steps need to be taken to help facilitate grizzly bear movement and connectivity between subpopulations to fully recover the species in the lower 48 states,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing the groups. “This decision does just the opposite. It hinders recovery by increasing human-bear conflict situations that don’t end well for the bears.”
“Conflict with livestock is a leading cause of death for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” said Jocelyn Leroux, Washington and Montana director with Western Watersheds Project. “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. A better choice would be to keep livestock out of public lands grizzly habitat entirely.”
In recent decades, Yellowstone grizzly bears have also experienced a drastic decline in two of their main food sources – whitebark pine nuts and Yellowstone cutthroat trout. This has led them to consume more meat, which sometimes includes livestock.
“The Forest Service’s decision to increase livestock grazing on public lands in important grizzly bear habitat is completely irresponsible,” said Andrea Zaccardi, carnivore conservation legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Putting livestock in habitat where grizzly bears live is akin to baiting these imperiled animals into conflicts. It’ll only lead to dead bears and thwart the recovery of this threatened species.”
“There should never be a wildlife resource policy whereby domestic livestock have priority over wildlife on public lands, yet that is essentially what is being done in this case”, said Clint Nagel, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. “The underlying premise that wildlife is expendable, that they will always be present in our world, has simply been proven wrong. We should know by now, that is not and will not be the case.”
In 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a species status assessment that named grizzly bear mortalities resulting from livestock conflicts and lack of connectivity as two of the major factors that threaten grizzly bear recovery. Today’s legal challenge asserts that by allowing expanded livestock grazing, the Forest Service failed to take these factors into account and relied heavily on an outdated 1998 baseline describing livestock use allowed in the grizzly bear “recovery zone.” However, in using this baseline the Forest Service failed to consider the current best available science regarding impacts to grizzly bears.
“The science is clear: grizzly bears need safe, livestock-free passage between populations in order to recover,” said Lizzy Pennock, carnivore coexistence advocate at WildEarth Guardians. “With this decision, the U.S. Forest Service ignores both the best available science and its legal responsibility to protect wildlife.”
“Montana’s Paradise Valley is aptly named,” said Mike Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Sitting between two towering mountain ranges, it cradles the mighty Yellowstone River that flows from its headwaters in America’s first national park and provides critical habitat to the native species still present 200 years after Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Yet, the Forest Service decided to expand cattle grazing on six allotments on the valley’s east side, including in a grizzly bear ‘recovery zone.’ It’s a formula for the destruction of native vegetation, sedimentation in cutthroat spawning streams, and for dead wolves and bears.”
“The Forest Service based their analysis on the 1998 baseline population data when there were few grizzly bears north of Yellowstone National Park and before climate change decimated whitebark pines, the nuts of which have historically been the grizzlies’ primary food source,” said Dr. Sara Johnson, Ph.D., director of Native Ecosystems Council and retired Custer National Forest wildlife biologist. “Illegally introduced lake trout likewise decimated Yellowstone’s once abundant native cutthroat trout, which provided a high-protein food source for the bears but today are threatened with extinction. This is not 1998, it is 2022. A quarter century later, it’s simply a fact that there are many grizzlies living in the Montana portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including in the vast Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area where some of the grazing allotments are located. It is imperative that the Forest Service analyze the impact of the grazing decision on the current conditions grizzlies bears face today. Failing to do so will result in the government and private ranchers killing far too many grizzly bears every year.”
“Allowing more livestock grazing in prime grizzly bear habitat is irresponsible and threatens long-term recovery of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem,” said Bonnie Rice, senior representative for the Sierra Club. “The Forest Service’s decision is misguided, considering the number of grizzly bears that are already killed every year as a result of conflicts with livestock operations in the Yellowstone region. Bears need to be able to move through this landscape and connect with grizzly bears to the north to ensure long-term recovery.”