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Matthew Brown

Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Federal officials will review whether enough is being done to protect grizzly bears in the contiguous U.S. states after environmentalists sued the government to try to restore the fearsome animals to more areas, according to a court settlement approved Monday.

The review must be completed by March 31, 2021, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ordered.

Grizzly bears have been protected as a threatened species in the U.S. — except in Alaska — since 1975, allowing a slow recovery in a handful of areas. An estimated 1,900 of the animals live in portions of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington state.

Tens of thousands of grizzlies once populated western North America before hunting, trapping and habitat loss wiped out most by the early 1900s.

Federal wildlife officials said in 2011 that additional areas should be considered for grizzly bear recovery, but that work has never been completed. 

In a lawsuit filed in June, the Center for Biological Diversity sought to force officials to consider restoring grizzlies to parts of California, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Oregon.

"There are a lot of places where grizzly bears used to live where we believe they could currently live," said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney for the group.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to the grizzly status review that could lay the groundwork for new restoration plans, though that's not guaranteed. Agency officials did not immediately respond to telephone and email requests seeking comment.

One area previously mentioned by federal officials as having potential for grizzlies is southwestern Colorado's San Juan mountain range.

Advocates of returning bears and other predators to the state have grown more vocal in recent years. They are now trying to get an initiative on the 2020 ballot to have the state reintroduce gray wolves west of the Continental Divide. Ranchers, hunters and other interests are campaigning against the proposal.

A review of the states in the continental U.S. would look at potential habitat for grizzlies, people who live in those areas and how far they are from existing grizzly populations, said Chris Servheen, former coordinator of the government's grizzly bear recovery program.

But Servheen said in his opinion that the review would distract from efforts already underway to bolster struggling populations of grizzlies in areas like the North Cascades of Washington state and the Bitterroot region of Montana and Idaho.

"It just doesn't make sense to look for new places for bears when we don't have enough money to deal with the existing areas we have," Servheen said.

The agreement between the government and environmentalists does not fully resolve the June lawsuit, which also seeks an update to the government's recovery plan for grizzlies.

Representatives of the ranching industry have intervened in the case to oppose a new recovery plan. They say it would hinder the government's efforts to lift protections for grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park.

Environmentalists successfully sued last year to block grizzly hunts planned in Wyoming and Idaho. The hunts were scheduled after the Fish and Wildlife Service determined about 700 grizzlies in and around the park no longer needed federal protection. 

Christensen disagreed and ordered protections

Many tribes consider grizzly bears sacred. At a congressional hearing in May, 2019, tribal leaders said that while different tribes hold different beliefs about grizzly bears, many consider grizzly bears to be closely tied to the spirits of ancestors.

“The grizzly bear – Hoonaw, as we call him – is held in high esteem, not only in our Hopi culture, but by other Native people in the United States and Canada. He is a healer and a medicine man. He plays a central role in the traditions, ceremonies, and the sovereignty of the Native people,” said Benjamin H. Nuvamsa, member of the Hopi Bear Clan and former chairman of the Hopi Tribe said at that May hearing. “It was the most powerful of bears that guided and protected my ancestors to arrive at Tuuwanasavi (‘Center of the Universe’), as we call the place where we live today. The bear, from which my ancestors took their name, gave rise to other important clans at Hopi. Today, the Bear Clan continues as traditional leaders, and an influential clan in the Hopi culture and Hopi way of life.”

“There is no soundbite that can communicate the importance of the grizzly in our cultures, but the fact that our ancestors wouldn’t say the name of the grizzly out of respect speaks to the Great Bear’s cultural significance,” said Tom Rodgers, member of the Blackfeet Nation and Rocky Mountains Tribal Leaders Council. “It is time that tribal nations had input and parity in decisions that will determine the future survival of our sacred ancestor, the grizzly bear.”

“The grizzly bear is integral to the culture and spiritual practices of the Northern Arapaho people. Our elders teach how the grizzly bear brought us our medicines. Grizzlies know not only about roots and herbs for physical healing but also about healing mental conditions, they say,” said Lynnette Grey Bull, senior vice president of the Global Indigenous Council and spokesperson of the Northern Arapaho Elders Society. “In the socio-economic bondage we survive in, our reservation communities need that healing more than ever today. The grizzly bear isn’t a ‘trophy game animal.’ The grizzly is our relative, a grandparent."

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Indian Country Today contributed to this story.