By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Grizzly bears roaming the Northern Rockies still require protection under the Endangered Species Act, despite their growing numbers, because of changing climate factors the government failed to consider, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the bulk of a lower-court ruling in 2009 requiring the federal government to restore safeguards to some 600 grizzlies inhabiting the region around Yellowstone National Park.
The ruling keeps the iconic hump-shouldered bruins off-limits to big game hunters.
Hunting, trapping and poisoning of grizzlies in the Lower 48 states had cut their numbers from tens of thousands in the 19th century to just several hundred by 1975, when the bear was listed as threatened with extinction.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifted Endangered Species Act protections in 2007, arguing the grizzly had made a healthy comeback over the past three decades in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, surpassing the agency's recovery goal of 500 bears in the region.
Conservationists challenging the de-listing successfully argued that the government discounted the impact of climate change on grizzlies in the Yellowstone area when assessing the health of the bear population.
They pointed to a dwindling supply of whitebark pines, high-elevation trees whose seeds provide a crucial food source for grizzlies. Scientists say a warming climate in the West was the chief culprit in the decline of whitebark pines, which are under assault from disease and pests.
A U.S. district judge agreed with the environmentalists and ordered the grizzly re-listed, prompting the government's appeal.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously sided with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition on the question of whitebark pines, finding that the trees' decline was reason enough to keep the bears protected.
Two of the three judges embraced the Fish and Wildlife Service's blueprint for the long-term management of a sustainable grizzly population, but the panel concluded that it was insufficient to deny the bears protection.
The ruling comes as the number of grizzly encounters with humans in the Northern Rockies has been running above average, including two fatal maulings in Yellowstone National Park that marked the first such deaths there since 1986.
Scientists said the shortage in the high country of whitebark seeds forces the bears to seek food in areas they once colonized but are now inhabited by humans.
Writing for the majority in Tuesday's ruling, Judge Richard Tallman said the grizzly delisting process had been well under way before whitebark pine losses emerged as a problem.
"But now that this threat has emerged, the service cannot take a full-speed ahead, damn-the-torpedoes approach to delisting," he wrote.
Doug Honnold, a lawyer representing the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said the opinion was a wake-up call for government agencies weighing threats to imperiled species in a vacuum.
"It's a precedent-setting case on the ravages of global warming that are being documented on the ground in the Yellowstone ecosystem," he said.
Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher said in an e-mail that the government was reviewing the decision.
The decision dealt a blow to sportsmen who were eager to hunt the trophy animals once they were delisted. The National Wildlife Federation, whose state and local chapters are often dominated by hunters and anglers, sided with the government.
"We've seen the grizzly population increase dramatically. The success on the ground seems clear to us," federation attorney Thomas France said.
He added that the appeals court's analysis of the whitebark pine issue gave too little deference to federal and state agencies' expertise.
Honnold, however, said state agencies had a financial incentive to eliminate the grizzly protections. "The states want to hunt grizzly bears, pure and simple," he said.
Earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that whitebark pines were themselves at risk of extinction due to climate change. But the agency said the trees must wait behind more imperiled species before being considered for listing.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)