Mead asked Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to work with Wyoming to remove grizzlies from the Endangered Species List sooner than currently anticipated. Delisting by the federal government appears to be at least two years out because an evaluation of data related to white bark pine is starting and expected to take two years, said a news release from the governor’s office.
Grizzly bears were delisted in 2007, but U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy put the bears back on the list in 2009, saying declining white bark pine nuts could have a negative impact on the population.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, a group of state and federal officials, is tasked with determining whether white bark pine decreases will decrease the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The nuts are a preferred food source, but are not crucial to the bears. Traditionally, white bark can’t be relied on from year to year, and if the bears can’t find it, they will find alternative foods, said Steve Ferrell, policy adviser to Mead and former Wyoming Game and Fish Department director.
The grizzly team already has gathered the data. Analyzing it is all that is required, so if they can pick up the pace that would be great, Ferrell said.
“Wyoming’s investment in recovery over the past 28 years exceeds $35 million,” Mead said. “The average annual cost to Wyoming for grizzly management approaches $2 million.”
Wyoming pays a lion’s share of management costs and handles the conflict calls, yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction, Ferrell said.
The population has recovered, Ferrell said. The oft quoted number is 600 plus in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but that is a conservative estimate. Others estimate the count at 900 to 1,200 grizzlies.
Bob Richard said he never has seen so many bears in the GYE. Richard, 75, runs Grub Steak Expeditions out of Cody. He said he reckons the number is around 1,000 grizzlies, and he believes the calculation model is inaccurate.
The average tourist driving through Yellowstone may not see any grizzlies, but Richard can venture behind Pahaska Tepee on the North Fork of the Shoshone and see three or four in one day. He doesn’t fear older, experienced grizzlies as much, but says the young bruins can be extremely unpredictable. “They’re no longer afraid of humans,” Richard said.
Mead said grizzlies were responsible for the deaths of four people in the last two years, but did not specify how delisting would save people from harm.
Ferrell said good habitat may be reaching carrying capacity, and conflicts outside good habitat are on the rise. State control would give Wyoming more latitude in managing the bears.
Chuck Neal, retired ecologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior and author of “Grizzlies in the Mist,” is adamantly opposed to delisting. He said the population is not recovered.
“My position hasn’t changed since the state’s hasn’t changed,” Neal said.
Until Wyoming allows the population to expand to new areas, Neal is against delisting. He fears white bark pines will be gone within 75 years. Grizzlies can find other foods, but they must have more space to do it, he said.
The area south of Yellowstone National Park and surrounding the park in places like the Wyoming and Wind River ranges could provide prime habitat, he said.
Neal said the grizzly population increase is not at a crisis level where hikers are in extreme danger of marauding grizzlies. Driving to major cities is far more deadly, he said.
Grizzlies deserve the same considerations as all Wyoming’s four legged inhabitants. “They’re a valid member of our wildlife,” Neal said.
Richard sees things differently.
“I support the governor 100 percent” on delisting, he said.