HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The U.S. government lifted protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region on Monday, though it will be up to the courts to decide whether the revered and fearsome icon of the West stays off the threatened species list.
More than a month after announcing grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park are no longer threatened, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially handed over management of the approximately 700 bears living across 19,000 square miles (49,210 sq. kilometers) in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to wildlife officials in those states.
The ruling does not apply to the approximately 1,000 bears living farther north in the Northern Continental Divide area that includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Not much is expected to immediately change as a result of the handover. State wildlife officials have been working for decades to protect the bears as their population grows and their range expands farther away from the oldest U.S. national park, and they say they will continue to do so.
Federal wildlife officials will also monitor the states for five years and re-impose protections if the population drops below 500 bears.
The bears were determined to be a threatened species in 1975 after hunting and trapping in the 1800s and early 1900s nearly wiped them out. The strict no-kill policy and habitat preservation that came with being on the threatened species list helped their numbers recover in the years since.
Now, grizzly bears can be hunted again under the management plans submitted by Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. None of the three states will hold a hunting season this year, and wildlife officials say any hunts in the future would be held only after closely examining the effects on the population.
“There are a lot of safeguards in the conservation strategy to ensure the grizzly population will remain,'' said Kevin Frey, a wildlife management specialist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Hunting grizzlies is strongly opposed by wildlife advocates and Native American tribes who worry the bears' recovery will nosedive without U.S. government oversight. Multiple organizations and individuals have filed notice that they will sue to place grizzly bears back on the threatened species list.
It's happened once before. In 2009, a federal judge overturned the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision two years earlier to lift protections after the Yellowstone bears' numbers rose above 600. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge's ruling in 2011.
The ruling then was that the bears still needed protection because of the decline of the whitebark pine trees — a key food source. Federal wildlife officials say that the bears have now adjusted to a more meat-based diet, and the whitebark pine nuts are no longer vital for their survival.
Wildlife advocates say that change in diet brings a different kind of threat.
Encounters with ranchers protecting livestock and hunters competing for elk and deer have become common as the bears' population has swelled and they wander back into areas where they haven't been seen in a century.
“We see bears going to areas where they have little chance of remaining conflict-free,'' Frey said. “It's becoming more challenging with all the people.''
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said the park supports the removal of grizzlies from the threatened species list but wants to make sure the population remains strong so visitors will continue having opportunities to see the animals.
Hunting still won't be allowed within the park.
After gray wolves were taken off the endangered species list, Yellowstone unsuccessfully sought the creation of a no-kill zone, or buffer zone, around the park. State officials rejected it.
A no-kill zone won't be pursued for grizzlies, Wenk said. Instead, park officials want to be involved with discussions that lead up to decisions by the three states on how to structure their bear hunts — and focus on areas where bears are more likely to have problems with humans and livestock.
“We have never asked for a buffer for bears. But what we have asked for and what is always part of our conversation is to concentrate the hunts in areas of conflict,'' he said.
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — An attorney for a Montana man convicted and sentenced to prison for the kidnap and rape of a 4-year-old girl on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation says he plans to appeal.
Assistant Federal Defender Henry “Hank'' Branom said Thursday that 22-year-old John Lieba maintains his innocence. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris sentenced Lieba Wednesday to 42 years after a jury convicted him in April.
The two-day search for the young victim in February 2016 rattled the reservation. It was followed weeks later by the murder of 13-month-old Kenzley Olson.
Kenzley's caregiver, Janelle Red Dog, also was sentenced Wednesday, to 20 years in prison. Branom says Red Dog's plea deal with prosecutors barred her from appealing.
Tribal leaders said the two crimes resulted from the scourge of drug abuse on the sparsely-populated reservation near the U.S.-Canada border.
PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona woman who put her 17-month-old daughter in a stroller, pushed her into the desert and left her to die on the nation's largest American Indian reservation has been sentenced to 20 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge David Campbell said Ashley Denise Attson, 23, committed an “intentional, cold-hearted, horrendous killing of an innocent child,'' imposing Monday the high end of a sentencing range detailed in a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Attson had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the September 2016 killing on the Navajo Nation. Her defense attorney, Ashley Adams, did not immediately return a call for comment.
Attson left her daughter in the desert for four days and nights before retrieving the body and burying it in an animal hole, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Arizona said Tuesday in a statement.
“Over the next few days, she met friends for ice cream and posted pictures of herself on Facebook,'' the statement said.
The child was born with methamphetamine in her system and was in the custody of tribal social services most of her life before Attson regained custody about two months before her daughter was killed, prosecutors said.
U.S. attorney's spokesman Cosme Lopez declined to comment on the motive for the killing and said he could not provide additional information on circumstances of the child's death.
Lopez also said policy prohibited release of the child's name because she was a juvenile. Court documents refer to her as “Jane Doe.''
The plea agreement said the maximum punishment that Attson could have received under her guilty plea to the murder charge was life in prison, and a former tribal prosecutor said she was troubled that Attson received a 20-year sentence.
The child no doubt was afraid, in physical distress and “needing the one person who is supposed to care for her the most, that being the mother,'' said Bernadine Martin, a former chief prosecutor for the Navajo Nation. “And 20 years is simply not enough.''
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Two defendants were given lengthy federal prison sentences Wednesday in separate, back-to-back horrific crimes of violence against children last year that rattled residents of a Montana American Indian reservation and prompted tribal leaders to blame rampant drug use.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris sentenced a woman from the Fort Peck Reservation to 20 years in prison for the murder of a 13-month-old who had been under her care. Less than two hours earlier, Morris handed down a 42-year prison term to a man who kidnapped and raped a 4-year-old girl on the reservation.
Tribal leaders said the crimes, which occurred within weeks of one another, were rooted in the rising scourge of methamphetamine use on the sparsely-populated reservation in northeastern Montana near the U.S. border with Canada.
While the sentencings closed out two cases that put a spotlight on the problem, tribal officials have said drug use continues and that they lack the resources to deal with it.
Fort Peck is home to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and has a population of about 10,000 people.
In the murder case, prosecutors said Janelle Red Dog, 43, abused 13-month-old Kenzley Olson, used methamphetamine while the child was unconscious and when the girl stopped breathing, put her body in a duffel bag and threw it in a trash can.
Red Dog pleaded guilty in May to second-degree murder after acknowledging she hit Kenzley twice on April 18, 2016 in an attempt to quiet her.
The child died of multiple blunt force injuries and an autopsy found she had numerous bruises from head to toe in various stages of healing, suggesting a pattern of continued physical abuse and neglect.
Red Dog had been caring for Kenzley for three to four weeks prior to her death, court records said. Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure has said Kenzley's mother was being held in the tribal jail when the girl died.
Red Dog's mother, Rhea Starr, said her daughter was caring for Kenzley because no one else would.
In the kidnapping case, John William Lieba II was accused of chasing down a 4-year-old girl, brutally raping her and leaving her for dead in an abandoned pickup in the middle of winter near the town of Wolf Point.
A jury convicted Lieba of kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse of a child and assault resulting in serious injury on a minor. He faced up to life in prison.
He became a suspect almost immediately after the girl's Feb. 26, 2016 disappearance and was arrested a day later.
A friend of the victim testified at his trial that she watched Lieba snatch the four-year-old girl after they'd been playing in a Wolf Point park. He was recognized by the mother of another girl he chased earlier the same night in the park but who got away, according to court records.
The victim was not found for two days, when a sheriff's deputy noticed her shoeless footprints in a patch of mud behind a fertilizer plant and discovered the girl — alive but traumatized — on a makeshift bed in the cab of an old pickup truck.
Bruises and burst blood vessels on her head and neck indicated Lieba had tried to strangle the girl, according to law enforcement officers and doctors who examined her.
The defendant's attorneys said Lieba had stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication prior to the kidnapping and could not remember the events.