(Reuters) - Wildlife advocates are suing the Obama administration to prevent the killing of protected grizzly bears that come into conflict with sportsmen over elk they kill or wound during annual hunts in northwest Wyoming.
The Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project accuses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of violating the Endangered Species Act with a permit allowing four grizzlies to be killed over seven years during elk hunts in Grand Teton National Park, south of Yellowstone National Park.
The wildlife advocates argue that those anticipated grizzly deaths, combined with federal permits sanctioning the deaths of grizzlies elsewhere in the region, may mean that as many as 65 female bears could be killed annually.
That would amount to three times the mortality limit set by U.S. wildlife managers, the activists say in their lawsuit filed Friday in a U.S. court in Washington, D.C.
The outsized, hump-shouldered grizzly bears, considered an icon of the American West, were added to the federal endangered and threatened species list in the lower 48 states in 1975, after hunting, trapping and poisoning cut their numbers to just 1,000 from an estimated 100,000 a century ago.
Most grizzlies that still roam the lower 48 are in and around Yellowstone National Park, which encompasses parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
In most cases it is illegal to kill grizzlies and other federally protected animals without special permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2013, the agency issued such a permit for Grand Teton, where the search for food by bears can bring them into conflict with hunters over elk carcasses, and where hunters shot and killed a grizzly in 2012.
“The fact that the government responded to that killing by authorizing the killing of four more bears in one of our nation’s premier parks ought to be telling us something is wrong with our management of grizzlies and parks,” said Tim Preso, attorney for Earthjustice, the environmental law firm representing the conservation groups.
A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
An inter-agency government panel overseeing Yellowstone area grizzlies has said the population of roughly 600 bears has recovered and recommended that they be stripped of federal protections, which could ultimately open the way for hunting.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler