BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A lawsuit seeking to ban using bait for hunting black bears in national forests in Idaho and Wyoming can continue, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale ruled Thursday in favor of three environmental groups who contend the practice has led to hunters killing federally protected grizzly bears.
The 1995 policy approved by the U.S Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows no inadvertent killing of grizzly bears.
The policy later survived a court challenge that was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The environmental groups argue in the lawsuit filed in 2019 that in the years since the policy took effect, black bear hunters using bait have killed at least 10 grizzly bears.
The U.S. government's policy targeted in the lawsuit allows states to decide if hunters can use bait for black bears in grizzly habitat. Idaho and Wyoming allow the practice.
WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project and Wilderness Watch say the federal agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws, and that they need to go through a process to reexamine whether black bear baiting should be allowed.
"States should not allow baiting that can attract grizzlies and lead to their deaths," said Pete Frost, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing the environmental groups. "Grizzlies have been shot near bait, and more may die, unless the Forest Service properly acts."
The U.S. Department of Justice, which defends federal agencies in lawsuits, didn't respond to an inquiry.
Hunters who use bait put out food and then hide and wait for a bear to come within shooting range.
Idaho and Wyoming have restrictions on where bait can be used to hunt black bears. Idaho prohibits hunting black bears using bait in areas inhabited by grizzlies. Wyoming prohibits the practice in grizzly bear recovery areas.
The conservation groups say bait is allowed in areas important to grizzly bears, such as between the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the Bitterroot ecosystem in central Idaho, and between the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem in northwestern Montana and the Bitterroot ecosystem.
The federal agencies didn't contest that grizzly bears had been killed by black bear hunters. Instead, Dale ruled on procedural issues the agencies cited having to do with environmental laws.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it lacked the legal authority to re-initiate consultation with the U.S. Forest Service under the Endangered Species Act, contending only the Forest Service had that authority.
However, Dale said that argument was without merit, citing previous court precedent.
Dale did side with the Forest Service in rejecting another argument by the environmental groups that called for the Forest Service to su pplement its previous analysis of bear-baiting.
Dale said the D.C. Circuit had previously ruled that the Forest Service had complied with the necessary environmental laws in deciding to allow bear-baiting, and that there was no ongoing federal action that needed supplementing.