JACKSON, Wyo. — Thousands of domestic cows paired up with their calves are on the go along the historic Green River Drift cattle drive, headed to expansive Bridger-Teton National Forest grazing allotments where they'll spend the summer.
Environmental groups have been fighting in the courts to alter one element of Forest Service grazing plans - what becomes of grizzly bears caught killing cattle - and they had asked a federal judge for an injunction that would have stopped the lethal removal of bears until the case is decided. Western Watersheds Project staffer John Persell, who is among the attorneys arguing the case, heard from U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta on Friday. Their request had been denied.
"The court issues this order to remove any uncertainty about defendant's ability to take nuisance grizzly bears from the Upper Green River Area Rangeland Project Area," Mehta wrote.
The court, the Washington, D.C., judge wrote, would issue written rationale for its decision sometime this week.
That decision is a blow to environmental groups, which have filed two lawsuits challenging a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to allow up to 72 grizzlies - classified as a federally "threatened" species - to be "incidentally taken," or killed, as a result of conflict with livestock. The Bridger-Teton's 2019 decision to reauthorize cattle grazing allowed that many bears to be killed over the next decade. The first summer there were three grizzlies killed, which means that 69 more can still be killed between the 2020 and 2028 grazing seasons.
Cattlemen have contended that a prohibition against killing grizzlies could cripple their operations. Conflict has been chronic, with 527 cattle, almost all calves, confirmed killed by bruins in the span between the 2010 and 2018 grazing seasons. Some 35 grizzlies were killed in response during the same time.
"If you're not removing them from the population, which is a nice way of saying killing them, what are you going to do?" Daniel rancher Charles Price asked the News&Guide. "They wanted an injunction to stop removing bears immediately, this season, and they had no plans to do anything with them other than musical chairs."
Trapping and relocating bears has been a first option when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has dealt with depredating bears. If an animal returns and is again implicated in killing livestock, its odds of being put down increase.
Fish and Wildlife's biological opinion imposes no restrictions on relocations, and the injunction sought by the Western Watersheds Project did not request that the judge restrict managers' ability to haul conflict grizzlies to other parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
For that reason, Persell said, ranchers' worries about effects on their operations were overblown.
"I think that if the judge granted our preliminary injunction for the duration of this case, it's not going to have a devastating impact," Persell said hours before Mehta's ruling last week. "We narrowly tailored our request to still allow cattle turnout."
Still, cattle ranchers like Price, whose cows are now on the move, said that seeking the injunction was a "foolish thing to do."
"They didn't have a good basis for it," he said. "We've been killing grizzly bears, if you think about it, since 1999, 2000, and the grizzly population is still expanding."
Price, a former Game and Fish commissioner, pointed to the grizzly bear recently confirmed on the forest north of Kemmerer, which is farther south than the species has roamed in the Lower 48 since settlers wiped them out of the area generations ago.