Case Summary

The Thoman Family, lead by the venerable Mary A. “Mickey” Thoman, is a Wyoming ranching family that has raised sheep in western Wyoming for nearly seven decades. But as a result of massive losses to their herds of sheep at the hands of the ever increasing grizzly bear population, and a near-death attack by a grizzly bear to one of the Family’s ranch hands, the Thoman Family had to give up their generations old family grazing land.

Given the grizzly bear population has consistently met recovery goals since 2007, the federal government has twice attempted to delist the grizzly bear population around Yellowstone National Park. But in September 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana issued a decision invalidating the delisting of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear and returning the bear to the endangered species list—contrary to the recommendation of 20 years of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research and the pleas of ranchers and citizens of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. In 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision. These decisions make it impossible for local and state officials to manage the growing grizzly population, and virtually guarantees more loss and death.

Case Update

Based on a finding of 700 bears, as well as additional research, the Fish & Wildlife Service proposed a rule in 2016 to classify the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem area (GYE) grizzly bear as a distinct population segment (DPS) and remove that DPS from the endangered list, while ensuring for their long-term conservation.

After publication of the final rule and recovery plan in June 2017, various environmental groups and Indian tribes declared their intention to sue over the grizzly delisting.  By the end of 2017, six separate federal lawsuits were filed in the District of Montana, challenging the bear’s delisting under the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as on other grounds. These lawsuits were eventually consolidated into the case of Crow Indian Tribe v. United States of America.

In September 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ruled in favor of the environmentalists and returned the GYE grizzly bear to the endangered species list. The decision went against 20 years of the federal government’s own research, and the pleas of ranchers and citizens in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Ranching families fear the consequences of protecting themselves from the grizzly bear—under strict endangered species laws, they could face fines or prison time for self-defense against the bear. The court’s ruling stripped state and local authorities of their ability to manage the bear population, virtually guaranteeing greater danger and property loss for residents. State and local control would provide for more efficient and targeted management of the animal.

MSLF, the Federal Defendants, and other Defendant-Intervenors appealed to the Ninth Circuit in June 2019, arguing that the district court had improperly expanded the scope of the Endangered Species Act, and had substituted its own judgment for that of Fish and Wildlife officials. The appeal continued until July 2020, when the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision in almost all respects—although the district court’ order requiring Fish and Wildlife Services to conduct a “comprehensive review” of grizzlies outside the specified Yellowstone population was vacated and sent back to the district court.

Upon resolving final matters, the district court closed the case while FWS undergoes additional review related to the remnant population of the lower-48 grizzly bear.

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Keeping a family farm, sheep or cattle ranch profitable is a difficult enough without special interest groups making it harder. The grizzly bear was once an endangered species, but in 2017 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly population exceeded scientists’ minimum goals for the powerful predator. It had fully recovered. The agency tried to remove the animal from the endangered list, but was sued in Crow Indian Tribe v. United States of America. More recently, environmental groups also got involved trying to prevent delisting of the grizzly.

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