Nearly two years ago, Grizzly Bear 726 vanished in the Centennial Mountains along the Montana-Idaho border leaving behind little evidence as to his fate. But the state of his radio collar—sliced off and stashed under the bank of a creek—along with a .308 rifle cartridge recovered nearby led some bear advocates to assume the worst. Now, four environmental groups are citing 726’s disappearance in a push to halt summer sheep grazing by a federal agricultural research station.
WildEarth Guardians, the Western Watersheds Project, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and Cottonwood Environmental Law Center filed suit in federal court today demanding that the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station scrap plans to graze sheep near known grizzly habitat on the fringes of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Among other allegations, the groups maintain that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing a “legally inadequate” biological opinion. That opinion, issued late last month, says the station’s grazing activity is unlikely to jeopardize the continued existence of grizzlies due to a lack of reported encounters between bears and humans in the area.
The groups now claim that assertion is bogus based on field diary entries from the sheep station obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The entries list several incidents from 2007 and 2008 involving grizzly bears on the station’s West Summer allotment; two of those entries state sheep station personnel were actually chased by bears. CELC Executive Director John Meyer questions how FWS could overlook such run-ins.
“It’s certainly alarming that the Fish and Wildlife Service has disregarded previous grizzly bear/human encounters,” Meyer says. “Now it’s no longer the grizzly bears that are at risk. It’s actual human lives. That changes the game.”
As for Griz 726, Meyer believes the bear’s disappearance provides new context for the suit. When CELC and others challenged deficiencies in a prior biological opinion last year, 726 escaped mention due to a shortage of information. But another document obtained by the plaintiffs—a heavily redacted law enforcement report by FWS from July 2013—shed new light on the bear’s case. According to the investigation, the two sheep station herders present near 726’s last known location failed to return to work the following year, closed out their bank accounts and changed their phone numbers. The report also states both were “supposedly reported to the Department of Homeland Security for breaching their contract, a violation of their visa to the U.S.”
“It casts a long shadow over the operations at the sheep station,” Meyer says, adding he feels the groups have a compelling case to halt grazing at least for this summer, “until a new biological opinion is prepared.”