By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole Daily Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling affirming the state of Wyoming’s authority over wildlife on private land within the borders of Grand Teton National Park.
The effect of the case is that hunting within the inholdings scattered throughout the 310,000-acre national park remains legal. From the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, federal judge Jerome Holmes dug into seven-decade-old documents that preceded the creation of the national park to make his decision.
“In sum, because the Wyoming Legislature did not authorize any cession of jurisdiction to the federal government over park inholdings in connections with the 1949-50 negotiations, no valid cession occurred,” Holmes wrote in an opinion issued Wednesday. “The National Park Service, therefore, did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in rendering its November 2014 decision.”
The judge, joined by justices Carlos Lucero and Nancy Moritz, affirmed a 2018 U.S. District Court of Wyoming decision that fell in the National Park Service’s favor. The state of Wyoming joined the federal government in the case as an intervenor.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and the Defenders of Wildlife were plaintiffs, initially filing two lawsuits that were later consolidated into one.
The dispute over whether the Park Service or Wyoming Game and Fish Department had jurisdiction over inholding wildlife traces to early 2014, when a wolf was shot at the Moosehead Ranch. Law enforcement rangers initially sought to prosecute the person who pulled the trigger on the .223 rifle, but the National Park Service pressed pause, launching into an unpublicized review of governmental jurisdiction over wildlife in the 1% of land within the park deeded to private owners or the state.
The Park Service determined later that year that the agency had interpreted the jurisdiction question incorrectly for decades, ceding management authority over private land wildlife in Grand Teton to the state of Wyoming. As a result the person who killed the wolf was not prosecuted, a nod to state statute that allows people to kill wolves in defense of livestock and property. The reinterpretation also meant that state-sanctioned hunts for species like bison, black bear, waterfowl and other game could be permitted, whereas previously only elk hunting — an activity explicitly permitted by the park’s enabling legislation — had been allowed within park boundaries.
Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and the Defenders of Wildlife were represented by Earthjustice. On Wednesday the firm’s Northern Rockies managing attorney, Tim Preso, said he would continue fighting for the protection of park wildlife.
“We are disappointed in this ruling,” Preso said in a statement, “and continue to believe that wildlife should be protected, not hunted or trapped, within the boundaries of Grand Teton, one of our nation’s flagship national parks.”
The National Parks Conservation Association and Greater Yellowstone Coalition were represented separately, hiring Robert Rosenbaum, of Arnold and Porter, as counsel.
Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik said the ruling was “good news for Wyoming.”
“This affirms what we believe has been the case all along with regards to wildlife management authority and responsibility in the park,” Nesvik said in a statement.
Gov. Mark Gordon, meanwhile, was “most gratified” with the circuit court’s decision.
“This is a critical underpinning for wildlife management in this part of Wyoming,” the governor said in a statement, “and gives due recognition to joint management and the strong relationship we have with Grand Teton National Park, which has always been important to Wyoming.”
Apart from its overarching ruling, the Tenth Circuit Court decided that two of the groups, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Parks Conservation Association, didn’t have legal standing to challenge a separate agency decision. Specifically, they contested the rearrangement of elk hunting unit boundaries so people hunting on the Pinto Ranch would not be subject to the more restrictive regulations that govern elk hunting within the park. Because of the appellate judges’ ruling on this issue, the federal district court will vacate that portion of the judgement and dismiss the claim.