- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Two environmental groups have filed a lawsuit saying Grand Teton National Park and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would allow too many grizzly bears to be killed in confrontations with elk hunters before officials would have to reassess their rules for elk hunting in the park.

The Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project filed suit Friday against the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Grand Teton is one of very few U.S. national parks that allow hunting. Each fall, the park hosts a hunt designed to control elk numbers.

Elk hunters regularly kill grizzly bears in self-defense in western Wyoming. That’s happened only once since Grand Teton was established in its current boundaries in 1950, however.

In 2012, two elk hunters killed a grizzly as the 530-pound animal was charging them and their father from 42 yards away in the park. Investigators determined the two acted appropriately under the circumstances.

Grizzly bears are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The bears’ protected status requires government agencies to account for a variety of threats in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Such threats include killings by hunters pursuing big game. Starting in 2007, officials anticipated that elk hunters would kill no more than one grizzly in Grand Teton over the next 15 years.

After the 2012 confrontation, park officials made several changes to their elk hunting program, including closing off to hunting the area where the confrontation occurred.

Meanwhile, Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service officials increased from one to four the maximum number of grizzlies they anticipated hunters would kill by 2022. Reaching that “take” limit would require the agencies to again revisit the rules for elk hunting in the park.

The environmental groups’ lawsuit claims the higher take limit fails to account for cumulative threats to grizzlies throughout the region. The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that the change violated the Endangered Species Act.

Elk hunters, especially, are at risk of violent confrontations with grizzlies because they typically leave gut piles from their kills in the field. The region’s grizzlies have become more dependent on gut piles and other sources of meat amid decreased availability of nuts from a pine species in decline, said Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups.

“They’ve turned to meat to make up for the absence of whitebark pine,” Preso said Monday. “If you’re a bear, you’re either mixing it up with hunters or you’re mixing it up with ranchers. In either case, that’s a risky lifestyle for a bear.”

Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing agency policy not to comment on pending litigation.

“We would prefer of course that no grizzlies are killed in Grand Teton as a result of hunting,” Skaggs said.

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Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver

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