By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - U.S. wildlife managers erred when they declined to list as endangered a small population of grizzly bears in the remote reaches of Idaho and northwest Montana, a federal judge has ruled in what conservationists on Wednesday hailed as a huge victory.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 determined the fewer than 50 grizzlies that roam the Cabinet Mountains and Yaak River drainage in the Northern Rockies were not in danger of extinction and did not warrant re-classifying as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Montana conservation group Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued, arguing the so-called Cabinet-Yaak population of grizzlies would go extinct unless U.S. wildlife managers tightened restrictions on logging, mining and other activities in bear habitat, all safeguards that would come with endangered status.
On Tuesday a federal judge in Missoula, Montana, sided with the conservation group in a ruling that found that the Fish and Wildlife Service had violated U.S. law in determining that the number of outsized, hump-shouldered bears in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem could reach a targeted recovery goal of 100 without added protections.
In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen found that the agency had long recognized that population of grizzlies was warranted for listing as an endangered species because of human-caused mortality and other threats.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 reported Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies were declining at an annual rate of about 0.8 percent per year and that the percentage of bears unlawfully or accidentally killed by humans had tripled by 1999-2012 compared with 1982-1998.
Yet the agency in 2014 reversed course, finding the bears did not need additional safeguards because their population trend had changed to stable from declining.
Christensen ruled that reversal was unlawfully arbitrary and capricious and ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to rework any proposal that would downgrade the status of the bears.
Alliance head Michael Garrity on Wednesday said the judge's decision was a victory for the grizzles.
"Now they have a chance at survival," Garrity said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to a request by Reuters for comment.
Grizzlies in 1975 were listed as threatened in the lower 48 states after they neared extinction.
The Cabinet-Yaak bears are among just a handful of grizzly populations that exist outside Alaska. The grizzlies in and around Yellowstone Park, the second-largest group of bears in the Lower 48 states, were delisted this summer.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sandra Maler)