Concerned that the proposed delisting of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could soon be followed by a grizzly pelt being hauled out of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, two conservation groups have sued the National Park Service in a bid to force the agency to take back its authority to manage wildlife on all lands within the park's boundaries.
By deciding in 2014 that the state of Wyoming could manage wildlife on some 2,300 acres of privately- or state-owned lands located inside the park's borders, the Park Service opened up the possibility that hunters could pursue wildlife such as wolves, moose, bison, elk, and possibly grizzlies if they are eventually delisted on those acres, and that trappers could go after beavers.
“We are committed to ensuring Grand Teton National Park’s remarkable wildlife is managed consistently throughout the park and with the highest level of protection possible, which park visitors expect,” said Sharon Mader, NPCA's Grand Teton program manager. “For more than 65 years, the National Park Service rightfully and lawfully exercised authority to protect all park wildlife. It should continue to do so moving forward.”
Many inholdings, or land not owned by the Park Service, within Grand Teton National Park are near places that are enjoyed by the park’s 2.8 million annual visitors, the two groups said in a release. A large number of visitors come to see the park’s wildlife.
"But under the Park Service’s decision, bison, moose, coyote, beaver, elk, and potentially in the future, grizzly bears that wander onto such inholdings could be shot and killed under Wyoming law," the release went on. "Park visitors’ experience will also be negatively impacted by the sights and sounds of such activity. Since the Park Service’s decision, a number of the park’s iconic bison have been killed by private hunters under state law within the park’s boundary."
At the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Executive Director Caroline Byrd sounded almost flummoxed by the Park Service's decision.
“We find ourselves taking the National Park Service to court to force the Park Service to maintain Park Service authority over Park Service resources,” she said. “After trying for months to convince them to reassert their long held authority over park inholdings, we were left with no choice but to go to court.”
While it's currently illegal to hunt grizzly bears due to their protection under the Endangered Species Act, if they are delisted as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing, Wyoming could establish a hunting season for the bruins and could possibly even allow "baiting" of the bears to draw them to certain areas for hunters, as is allowed in some parts of the state during the black bear hunting season.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Parks Conservation Association argue that the Park Service’s decision to turn wildlife management on inholdings over to the state violates federal law. The Park Service, which has the legal authority to prohibit hunting anywhere within the boundary of the park, has the responsibility under its governing statutes to exercise that authority to protect the park’s wildlife, the groups maintain.
"NPS's abdication of its responsibility and authority to control or prevent the killing of park wildlife on inholdings was contrary to law because federal law prohibiting anyone from harming park wildlife does apply on inholdings in Grand Teton," a section of the lawsuit states. "Furthermore, in determining incorrectly that federal law does apply, NPS acted arbitrarily and capriciously, including by failing to consider all relevant facts."
According to the lawsuit, the Park Service changed its position regarding who had authority to manage wildlife on inholdings within Grand Teton after a wolf was killed on private land inside the park. In 2015, the lawsuit added, the Park Service agreed with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that bison could be hunted on private lands inside Grand Teton. A similar agreement later was reached regarding elk hunting on the Pinto Ranch, a 450-acre spread within park boundaries, the lawsuit claims.
Those decisions were flawed and unnecessary, the groups claim, because in 1950 when the park's enabled legislation was passed by Congress, "the federal government and the state government had agreed that federal law applied to prohibit killing wildlife on Grand Teton inholdings as well as on federally owned park land."
The one compromise was that "public hunters were allowed to shoot elk in the park under a program under which the state would play an unprecedented role concerning hunting in a national park. Specifically, an advisory committee would be set up to develop annual and long-term plans for 'control' of the elk herd. The committee's recommendations would be submitted to the Interior Secretary and (Wyoming Game and Fish Department), which would have the responsibility to issue orders and regulations to implement the hunt recommended by the committee."