On Nov. 7, the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee gave a preliminary recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for grizzly bears, which are listed as threatened.
Despite that, Wyoming has no plans to prepare for issuing hunting licenses.
“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” said Dan Thompson, Wyoming Game & Fish Department statewide supervisor of the large carnivore management section.
Hunting is “something we’ll look at in the future, but right now our focus is to get the animal delisted,” he said.
Fish & Wildlife will decide in late December or early January whether to write a new proposed rule. If they proceed, the proposed rule would likely be published in mid-2014, according to Chris Servheen, Fish & Wildlife grizzly bear recovery coordinator in Missoula, Mont.
“It wasn’t a decision to delist,” said Chris Colligan, Greater Yellowstone Coalition wildlife advocate in Jackson, of the recommendation Nov. 7. “It was conditional on the basis of all these studies.”
One of the studies, which hasn’t been released or reviewed, said grizzlies could survive without whitebark pine nuts. If it can be scientifically verified that whitebark declines will not trigger a grizzly population decrease, that could give Fish & Wildlife the ammunition it needs to defend delisting in court.
Whitebark pine surveys on established transects indicated generally poor cone production during 2013 in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA,) according to a report from Mark A. Haroldson with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Monitoring from the last two years shows the grizzly population didn’t decline despite the drop in whitebark pine cone production, Thompson said.
Grizzlies were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, then delisted in 2007. However, federal Judge Donald Molloy restored their threatened status in 2009, at least in part because whitebark pine trees were dying from a pine beetle and blister rust infestation. Whitebark nuts are an important food source for grizzlies.
“The IGBST (Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team) presented a lot of new information, but most of it still is not available for the public to review yet,” said Sylvia M. Fallon, director of the Wildlife Conservation Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.
“A lot of significant concerns have been raised in the past year about the size of the population and whether its increasing or decreasing,” Fallon said. “These are some pretty important issues to work out before we can say that the population is doing well or still facing some serious threats, including from the loss of whitebark pine.”
There were 136 grizzly bears in the GYA when they were listed as threatened, according to the National Park Service.
The current population is estimated at 629 grizzlies, according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
Data still is preliminary, but it appears there were 25 grizzly mortalities in the GYA in 2013, 16 of which occurred in Wyoming. There were 56 mortalities in 2012; 33 in Wyoming, 11 in Yellowstone and two in Grand Teton National Park, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Most of Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks are in Wyoming.
Dusty Lasseter, bear-wise community coordinator for the Game & Fish in Cody, said there were fewer mortalities this year because it was a good forage year for bears. Whitebark was poor, but berry production was excellent, so there were fewer problem bears seeking food near humans.
The GYA population remains isolated from other grizzly bears. Establishing natural connectivity with other populations is something the NRDC believes is essential for Yellowstone grizzlies to be truly recovered, Fallon said.
Connectivity also is high on the GYC’s list and is one of its goals. GYA grizzlies need genetic exchange with Northern Continental Divide ecosystem grizzlies in western and northwestern Montana, which includes Glacier National Park. Thus far, there has been no evidence suggesting the two populations are connecting, Colligan said.
Tim Metzler of Powell said he believes hunting would help control the population that is spilling out of the core area in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding wilderness areas in the GYA.
“I like seeing (grizzly) bears around, but definitely, we need some management,” Metzler said.
Forty percent of elk calves in the GYA die within three weeks of birth due to predation. Thinning the grizzly population would give some calves the chance to reach maturity. “I think it (hunting grizzlies) could be a success story for elk,” Metzler said.
He said grizzlies should be hunted in the front country near ranches and other locations where human-bear conflicts arise. But they also should be hunted in wilderness areas to allow younger grizzlies a foothold, because older, bigger boars push the youngsters into the front country and potential altercations with humans. Hunting, as a management tool, would level the playing field a bit for both big predators and their prey.
“I’m in for hunting grizzly bears,” Metzler said.
Colligan said he wants to read all the research from the subcommittee meeting once it has been scientifically verified before he forms any opinions about delisting.
“What is best for grizzly bears,” Colligan said, “that is what we’re working for.”
“Once all of the information is available and we’ve had a chance to carefully evaluate it we hope we’ll have a better sense of how this population of bears is really doing,” Fallon said. “We’d be the first to rejoice at news of a healthy, growing and robust population. But for now, we think it’s too soon to celebrate.”