Game and Fish Approves Griz Hunt

By on May 23, 2018


JACKSON HOLE, WY – One year after Yellowstone grizzly bears were removed from the endangered species list, Wyoming Game and Fish voted unanimously today to allow grizzly bear hunting. A lengthy period of public comments—both in opposition and support—preceded the vote in Lander.

It has been more than four decades since the bruin was legally hunted in Wyoming. Now as many as 22 grizzlies could be killed this fall.

One female or 10 male grizzlies could be hunted in the designated “demographic monitoring area.” The two-month hunting season begins there September 15. Only one hunter at a time is allowed in the DMA and if a female bear is killed, the season in this zone will immediately end. Outside that area, hunters could target an additional 12 male or female grizzlies beginning September 1.

Hunting is still prohibited in an area near Grand Teton National Park where popular bears like Bear 399 and her cubs frequent. Game and Fish officials said this would “support the wildlife viewing tourism economy.”

Some parts of the plan were based on public input. They include mandatory education for grizzly bear hunters and prohibiting grizzly hunting near highways.

A Bruin Battle

Public condemnation following Game and Fish’s vote was swift.

“This is a very sad day for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region,” Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club said in prepared statement. “Wyoming’s decision … marks a huge setback for grizzly bear recovery.”

Wyoming took over management of the bruin in 2017 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region from the endangered species list. The grizzlies’ recovery is “one of America’s great conservation successes, the culmination of decades of hard work,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in 2017. The population rebounded from 136 bears in 1975 to about 700 in 2017.

According to the USFWS, more than 650,000 comments were submitted on the 2016 proposal to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the endangered species list. Wyoming Public Media reported in January 2017 that thousands of those comments were in opposition.

Rice pointed out that bears are the second slowest mammal to reproduce in North America. Allowing this hunt so soon after removing the bears’ protections “does nothing to build public confidence in state management of grizzly bears,” she said.

More than 200 Native American tribes also decried Game and Fish’s vote, calling the bears “sacred.” A statement issued by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council described an alternative plan tribal nations had provided to lawmakers. It was the most-signed tribal treaty in history and advocated for relocating grizzlies “to sovereign Tribal lands in the grizzly’s historic range where biologically suitable habitat exists.”

They said Wyoming officials acknowledged their proposal in July 2016 but rejected a discussion with tribes: “RMTLC raised this matter with Senator John Barrasso–R, WY, and we still await a response.”

Other opponents included a group of more than 100 wildlife photographers. They sent a letter to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead ahead of the vote imploring him to halt the hunt. The group stressed the economic impacts of hunting an animal that draws millions of tourists, helping to feed the state’s “$3.2 billion tourism economy and tens of thousands of jobs.”

Local wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen said the hunting proposal would also “destroy critical progress in recovering the Yellowstone grizzly population.”

“We spent four decades and tens of millions of dollars saving these majestic bears from extinction, and now the state of Wyoming is proposing to kill them for a trophy on somebody’s wall?” Mangelsen wrote.

He described the awe and excitement of people he witnesses see their first—and perhaps only—grizzly bear. “It brings tears to my eyes.” he said.

More than 70 scientists also issued a letter to Mead urging him to rethink the state’s position prior to Wednesday’s vote. “Wyoming’s plans to reduce numbers of grizzly bears outside of the national parks will, in some zones, amount to an unmitigated slaughter,” said Dr. David Mattson, retired U.S. Geologic Survey research wildlife biologist.

Scientists said a viable grizzly population should be between 2,000 and 10,000. Yellowstone’s roughly 700 grizzly bear population “is far too small to be viable in the face of foreseeable environmental changes and genetic losses.”

Among the environmental changes already facing the bruin? Some of the bears’ main sources of food—whitebark pine seeds, cutthroat trout and deer—are diminishing due to climate change, according to a recent study.

Game and Fish’s plan would limit connectivity with other grizzly bear populations, scientists said. It would also limit their ability to settle in suitable habitats.

Mead wasn’t swayed.

During a May 3 C-SPAN interview, the Governor called grizzlies “wonderful predators”  that impact other wildlife populations like moose. “We need to recognize that the state is in control of wildlife here. We want state management. The question isn’t whether we want grizzly bears or not, the question is whether grizzly bears have grown in population and in habitats that they can be a sustainable species and clearly they have.”

Before the proposed hunting season, grizzly bears were still being killed in Wyoming by government managers, Mead said.

According to Wyoming Game and Fish, 56 bears were killed in the monitoring zone in 2017. Some were killed by hunters in self-defense. Others were captured by Game and Fish after they had become a public safety threat and some were struck and killed by motorists.

In Jackson, the decision drew outrage.

“This is completely unnecessary since the population has been stable since 2002. It does not need to be ‘controlled,’” Roger Hayden of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates said on Facebook. “The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is fixated on ‘hunter opportunities,’ since they derive the bulk of their funding from hunter license fees. Something needs to change.”

About 80 percent of Game and Fish’s funding comes from license fees and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. The grizzly tag fees will be $600 for a resident and $6,000 for a non-resident.

Those who support the hunt say this is a suitable method to control the population.

Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon, “a lifelong Wyoming sportsman and rancher” who is running for governor, celebrated the vote.

“This is the right approach for Wyoming—it is based in science, reflects the opinion of Wyoming people and incorporates provisions to maintain our strong tourism economy,” he said in a press release. “With this conservative policy developed by the Game and Fish Department, we can keep the population of grizzlies healthy and try to reduce conflicts to keep residents and visitors safe.”

He emphasized that hunting will not be allowed in national parks or in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. Referencing tribal opposition to the plan he said “decisions about hunting on the Wind River Reservation are up to the tribes.”

Other states home to Yellowstone grizzlies recently considered hunting the bruin. In February, Montana rejected such a plan. Idaho, meanwhile, voted in March to allow the killing of one male grizzly. Wyoming’s hunt will be the largest in the lower 48 states.

The decision could be reversed if one of the 2017 lawsuits filed by conservation and tribal groups holds up in federal court. Some of those lawsuits argue that climate change’s effects on the bears’ diets will adversely affect the population. They are also anchored in another argument: that Yellowstone bears cannot be considered a distinct population segment. This categorization allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to specifically delist Yellowstone’s bears and not others.

[Up to 22 bears could be killed in Wyoming’s hunt. An earlier version of this story listed 23. – Ed.]

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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