Yellowstone area grizzly bears, part of one of the “greatest conservation stories in the world,” are now poised to become the subject of some hunting stories this fall.
With little discussion, Wyoming Game and Fish Commission members approved the rules for the state’s first grizzly hunt in decades with a unanimous Wednesday vote.
Commissioner Mike Schmid said people come to Wyoming because of the state’s robust wildlife populations. He predicted Game and Fish would manage the grizzlies well, “just like they have everything else in this state.”
The vote was the last regulatory hurdle the hunt had to clear in Wyoming, though the possibility remains that legal challenges could block it.
Under the parameters of Wyoming’s hunt, up to 22 bears could be harvested this fall. That includes up to 10 males and one female in the “demographic monitoring area,” which is the prime bear habitat around Yellowstone National Park. If and when a female is killed, the hunt in that area will end. That’s one reason why it’s unlikely the full 22-bear quota will be filled.
The department says it’s taken a “conservative approach” to the hunt that also includes a focus on areas with higher potential for grizzly bear/human conflicts, closing off an area near Grand Teton National Park “to support the wildlife viewing tourism economy” and a ban on hunting the bears near highways.
A hunt became possible when the grizzly bear was removed from the federal endangered species list last year. Federal protections for the species had been put in place back in 1975, when as few as 136 grizzlies remained in the Yellowstone area. There are now believed to be well over 700 bruins roaming the region around Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
But hunting the species as a trophy animal has proven controversial. Idaho is moving forward with plans to hunt one bear, while Montana opted not to hold a hunt this year.
Tens of thousands of public comments from across the country poured into the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as the state moved toward a grizzly hunt.
Discounting the many form letters, the department received 3,334 individual comments, said Dan Thompson, the Game and Fish Commission’s large carnivore section supervisor. Around 60 percent of Wyoming residents who weighed in supported a hunt, while comments from outside the state were generally opposed, “which was expected,” Thompson said. He said the opposition was primarily based on emotion — people philosophically opposed to hunting grizzlies.
Linda Olinger, a retired educator from Riverton who spoke against the hunt, said she was “an emotional one.”
“It seems sort of like, ‘Ah, we’ve reached recovery.’ Kind of like, you know, you do your 12 steps in AA and then you go, ‘I’m going to celebrate with a drink,’” Olinger said Wednesday.
She was among more than two dozen people who addressed the commission at the meeting in Lander — including representatives from conservation groups and American Indian tribes that oppose the hunt and sportsmen’s groups that support it.
Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club said the hunt would set back the species’ recovery by decades.
“Trophy hunting of such an iconic species that reproduces so slowly, so soon after losing endangered species protections, and practically on the doorstep of the world’s first national park, will be seen by the world as profoundly unethical and severely risks Wyoming’s tourist-based economy and public image,” Rice said.
However, Brian Nesvik, chief of the Game and Fish’s Wildlife Division, told commissioners that the department’s hunt is intended to maintain a viable, healthy population of grizzlies so “it remains something that our great state can remain proud of for decades and decades into the future.”
Nesvik also noted that, although the species wasn’t removed from Endangered Species Act protections until last year, the population was considered to be recovered well over a decade ago.
“It’s important, I think, for everyone to note that this population, by biologically established recovery criteria, developed by grizzly bear experts that are specifically focused on this particular population, by those measures, this population has been recovered since at least 2004,” Nesvik said.
“It’s been recovered for 15 years,” Commission Vice President David Rael of Cowley later agreed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service previously delisted the bears in 2007, but a federal judge put them back on the list in 2009 until more research was conducted about how a decline in whitebark pine nuts would affect the species.
It’s possible that a similar thing could happen this time: U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula is expected to rule on lawsuits brought by conservation groups and Native American tribes, challenging the delisting, before the fall hunt.
At the end of more than an hour of public comments on Wednesday, Game and Fish Commissioner Peter Dube thanked everyone for participating.
“While we don’t always agree on everything,” Dube said, “I think we can agree the grizzly is a wonderful, wonderful animal and we’re very fortunate to have them in the state.”