SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Endangered Species Act protections, including habitat safeguards, should remain intact for some 600 grizzly bears roaming the area around Yellowstone National Park, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the bulk of a lower-court ruling in 2009 that required the federal government to restore the status of the iconic bear as a threatened species.
Conservation groups successfully argued then that the government failed to analyze the impact of climate change on Yellowstone region grizzlies when Endangered Species Act protections were lifted in 2007.
The U.S. Wildlife Service, an Interior Department agency, had asserted that the population of the out-sized, hump-shouldered bears which roam parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming had made a healthy comeback during the past three decades.
But environmentalists pointed to the dwindling supply of whitebark pines, high-elevation trees that provide a crucial source of food for grizzlies. Scientists say a warming climate in the West is the chief culprit in the decline of whitebarks, which are under assault from diseases and pests.
Conservationists also had won support for their argument that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to devise an adequate plan to ensure the bear’s continuing recovery once stripped of federal safeguards.
The government appealed the U.S. district judge’s decision to re-list the grizzly. But a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously sided with conservation groups on the question of whitebark pines, finding that the trees’ decline was reason enough to keep bears protected.
The decision dealt a blow to sportsmen who were eager to hunt the trophy animals once they were de-listed.
The appellate panel nevertheless reversed the lower-court finding that the government had fallen short in its post-listing recovery plan.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston