Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife officials led a lightly attended season-setting meeting in Cody Tuesday night. They scheduled the large conference room at the Cody Holiday Inn, expecting a large crowd. Only about 40 chairs were filled. At least 15 Game and Fish “redshirts” attended the meeting representing mostly biologists and game wardens.
Large Carnivore Section Supervisor Dan Thompson may have also expected some form of protest.
“We’re trying to get away from the grandstanding that we hear at these kind of meetings because it’s not really productive for the larger collective,” Thompson said prior to a public comment period.
There were some heated conversations, but not opposing hunts of the iconic Yellowstone ecosystem species, which was removed from federal Endangered Species Act protections last year; those making points on Tuesday were more concerned with the licensing process.
Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston was the first of several to voice worries that opponents of the hunt will flood the application process.
“One thing we’re very concerned about is the potential for hijacking these licenses — especially with a $5 application fee for residents and $15 for non-residents,” said Livingston, owner of Livingston Outfitting since 1995.
Livingston said there is a strong sentiment against the proposed hunts, both from
out-of-state entities and from those in-state who are strongly opposed to the season. Livingston would rather have seen the full cost of the licenses, $600 for residents and $6,000 for non-residents, charged up front to deter attempts to gum up the process.
Thompson said the low application fees are designed to make the process accessible to the general public.
“I hope members of the hunting community can step up and put in for those tags as well as the non-hunting community,” Thompson replied, adding, “We’re trying to remain open so anyone that wants to put in [for a license] can.”
Diluting the process has been used to thwart controversial hunts in other states. For at least this first hunt, only two hunters will be allowed in the demographic monitoring area (DMA) — basically, the core bear habitat — at a time. That makes it possible that hunting opponents could put in for a license and, if their name is drawn, delay in making a decision to purchase the license or buy a license and then take time off the season’s clock while not harvesting a bear.
Chris Cormell, of Cody, left upset.
“Is this the best you can do?” he asked during the comment period.
Cormell complained about the low application fee and also worried about the GPS communication devices hunters will be required to carry, not wanting his every step watched.
“This could be a good opportunity. But they made it a debacle,” he said on his way out the door.
Thompson said hunters’ travels will not be tracked and the location of harvested bears will be protected.
Some in attendance speculated there won’t even be a hunt, suggesting unresolved litigation may stall the hunts.
An appellate court opinion that kept wolves in the Great Lakes region under Endangered Species Act protections has prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review its rule that delisted grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).
“We thought it was pertinent to review the GYE final rule,” Hilary Cooley, grizzly coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said at a recent Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee meeting.
“We said we were going to have a review determination out at the end of March but we have not met that timeline,” Cooley said. “Additionally, with the new administration, review timelines are really long.”
Six lawsuits were filed against the Fish and Wildlife Service over the grizzly delisting rule and have been consolidated in Montana’s federal district court. U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen recently denied a request from Fish and Wildlife to stay the suits, moving the litigation forward. A schedule for the case to continue could be released as soon as Friday, Cooley said.
Until a judgment on the litigation is issued, grizzlies will remain delisted and the state will continue to plan fall hunts. Hunts are scheduled to begin within the demographic monitoring area (DMA) on Sept. 15 — two weeks after the season opens outside that core area surrounding Yellowstone. The difference in timing is intended to protect grizzlies frequenting moth sites; Yellowstone ecosystem grizzlies are the only known bears to feed on moths and have been the subject of a study on the phenomenon.
Park County Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf, who’s also a voting member on the Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee, expressed confidence the hunt will happen. Grosskopf has harvested an Alaskan brown bear and fully supports the Wyoming hunt.
He plans to apply for a license, but knows being chosen as the first resident hunter could be problematic. Thompson is unsure if he will apply for the license, but said he’d turn down his chance if he was selected in the draw.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate. I know where they’re at,” Thompson said.
Livingston also broached the subject of a spring hunt, citing better chances of harvest and easier sexing of grizzlies.
Thompson said he’d like to think “we’re creative enough to think of future ways we can try to incorporate [a spring hunt] every other year.”
“A spring hunt is much more conducive to protecting that female segment, and based on snowpack, that’s when we have a lot of bear down in areas where they’re more conducive to conflict,” he said.
However, with the way the hunts are currently set up inside the DMA, it would be difficult to opt for a spring hunt, Thompson said. The Game and Fish has placed a strict limit on females: If two are harvested within the DMA, no more hunting will be allowed.
Thompson does see the potential for a spring hunt outside the DMA due to the lack of strict constraints on the quota. There is a limit of 12 grizzlies inside the DMA, and an additional 12 bears outside the DMA in Hunt Area 7.
Grizzlies outside the DMA are not counted to be included in the estimated population of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, currently pegged at about 720 bears. That number is biased to the low side.
“We know the current method we’re using [to count grizzlies] underestimates the population,” Thompson said.
There is currently a conversation within the Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee to change the way the population is estimated, but the best available science option, proposed by wildlife biologist Frank van Manen with the U.S. Geological Survey, still has to go through peer review before being considered by the committee overseeing the species.
After peer review, changes to the Wyoming, Idaho and Montana memorandums of understanding, as well as the Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee’s conservation strategy would be necessary. The earliest a new counting system could be in place would be late in 2019. Until then the equation used to count, known as the Chao II method, will remain intact.
New counting methods were available prior to the delisting of Yellowstone ecosystem grizzlies, but the implementation of the new method may have delayed delisting by years, according to Grosskopf. Protests against new counting methods — not necessarily against best available science, but rather of changing count methods so early in the delisting process — were made by Dan Wenk, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park at the YGCC meeting last week.
“The commitment was we were going to use Chao II into the foreseeable future. What I heard is we are already questioning its use,” Wenk said. “That’s a pretty small window for a foreseeable future.”
Some estimates by those outside the committee and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department put the population of grizzlies closer to 1,200.