Groups take on griz hunt law

February 22, 2019

A 5-day-old Wyoming law allowing grizzly bear hunting — regardless of the species’ federal status as a threatened species — is drawing legal challenges from environmental groups.

The Legislature approved Senate File 93, “Grizzly bear hunts,” by a wide margin last week, and two days later, Gov. Mark Gordon signed it into law. The legislation green-lights a Wyoming grizzly hunt, even though the bears are classified as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

On Wednesday, five environmental groups filed an intent to legally challenge the new law, which puts state law in conflict with federal law.

“The state of Wyoming has enacted a law that directs the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to schedule a hunt for grizzly bears, despite the fact that the Endangered Species Act absolutely forbids the killing of a listed species,” Western Watersheds Executive Director Erik Molvar told the Jackson Hole Daily. “Clearly, the Wyoming Legislature once again doesn’t understand its role under the U.S. Constitution.”

The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society and Jackson Hole-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates also signed the notice, which is a required precursor to a lawsuit when litigating the Endangered Species Act.

The Legislature’s new law has been widely perceived as a symbolic gesture stemming from frustration with federal courts having twice revoked the state’s ability to manage grizzlies. The law’s language is permissive, rather than being worded as a mandate that Wyoming hunt grizzly bears.

“The reason we don’t say ‘shall’ is because we can’t ask our Game and Fish people to be convicted felons,” said Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who co-sponsored the bill, last month. “That’s what it would do if we did that.”

At one point during the legislative session, the bill was amended to direct that problem-causing grizzly bears be relocated to California, though the final version added “other willing states with suitable habitat” and those with populations below the threshold for federal protection.

Reps. Jim Roscoe, I-Teton/Sublette/Lincoln, and Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, and Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, voted for the bill, while Rep. Mike Yin, D-Teton, opposed it.

Molvar deemed it worthwhile to take legal action, even though the new law is unlikely to result in an actual grizzly hunting season.

“I think it’s important anytime the state of Wyoming ... makes moves to target a native predator for extermination that the public push back as hard as we can,” Molvar said. “The state government backing a comprehensive war on native wildlife in order to support the agriculture industry, or in a misguided attempt to prop up game species, is an embarrassment.”

Biologists believe there are 700 or so grizzlies in the portion of the tristate Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where the population is estimated. Wyoming contains the majority of the occupied grizzly habitat. Before U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen issued a restraining order blocking a hunt, Wyoming was days away from its first grizzly hunting season in 44 years, which would have targeted 21 bruins.

The environmental group’s notice of intent to sue contends that Wyoming misinterpreted the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which concerns state sovereignty, when lawmakers signed SF93 into law. The 10th Amendment does not provide a legal basis for the Legislature or the Game and Fish Commission to override the Endangered Species Act, the legal notice states.

“Nor does it provide a basis for ignoring the decision of the District Court,” the legal notice states. “Courts have repeatedly recognized that where a federal law reflects a valid exercise of Congressional authority, state laws or regulations conflicting with that of federal laws are preempted due to the Supremacy Clause.”

Representatives for Gov. Gordon did not respond to interview requests Thursday.