HELENA, Mont. – Native American tribes, clans and leaders from seven states and Canada say the U.S. government's recent decision to lift protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area violates their religious freedom.
They are suing to block the government from removing Yellowstone grizzlies from the endangered and threatened species list, which would allow Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to hold grizzly bear hunts.
The Native American plaintiffs argue that trophy hunting for grizzly bears goes against their religious and spiritual beliefs. The lawsuit filed June 30 asks a federal judge to rule that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must consider the Native Americans' beliefs and consult adequately with them before removing grizzly protections that have been in place since 1975.
"He is our relative. For us Bear Clan members, he is our uncle," Ben Nuvamsa, a former chairman of the Hopi Tribe in Arizona, said Wednesday. "If that bear is removed, that does impact our ceremonies in that there would not be a being, a religious icon that we would know and recognize."
The three states have not planned any hunts for this year, but have agreed to quotas and to cease all hunting if the Yellowstone population falls below 600 bears. There are now about 700 in the region.
Basing a legal challenge of an Endangered Species Act decision on religious beliefs and inadequate tribal consultation has not been tried before, said the plaintiffs' attorney, Jeff Rasmussen. It's an argument that differs from those of the conservation and wildlife advocacy groups who have also filed intentions to sue over last month's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision.
"They don't feel like they've been listened to, both with regard to their religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs, and with regard to some of the issues in this case," Rasmussen said. "They feel the U.S. is not listening to them, and we're hoping to change that."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and Department of Interior officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. U.S. Department of Justice officials did not return a call or email for comment.
The government began the process of delisting the bears in March 2016 under the Obama administration, and received 650,000 public comments. The Fish and Wildlife Service says on its website it offered an opportunity to government-to-government consultation to 53 tribal governments through letters, phone calls, emails and webinars during that time.
It is government policy to conduct direct consultations with tribes, which are sovereign nations, on Endangered Species Act issues.
The lawsuit alleges that government officials only contacted four tribes initially, and only contacted the others after the decision had been made.
"They promised us that they would consult with us before they made the decision," Nuvamsa said. "They reneged on it."
The plaintiffs are 17 tribes, clans and individuals from Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico and Canada. Rasmussen said two more tribes from Nebraska and South Dakota are being added.