While Wyoming officials continue to work toward the start of the state’s first grizzly hunt in more than 40 years, a federal judge in Montana could theoretically halt the hunt in its tracks today (Thursday).
Six lawsuits challenging the federal delisting of the species from the Endangered Species Act have been consolidated into a single case that’s being heard by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula. Observers expect a packed house by those on both sides of the issue. Christensen could agree with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist the Yellowstone region’s bears, disagree and stop the hunts or take the case under advisement and make a ruling later — possibly ending hunting in the process.
Wyoming Game and Fish officials are holding their breath in anticipation of the Thursday ruling, but Large Carnivore Section Supervisor Dan Thompson was not optimistic prior to the hearing.
“It’s frustrating. The lawsuit has nothing to do with hunting but that’s how it’s being billed,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to stay positive and we’re prepared to move forward ...”
Barring a legal setback, hunts will begin Saturday outside of the core grizzly habitat in and around Yellowstone National Park that’s known as the demographic monitoring area (DMA). Hunts inside the DMA would begin Sept. 15 in areas bordering Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Protesters were able to score at least two of Wyoming’s 22 opportunities at a grizzly tag, including Jackson wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen. Mangelsen has said he will spend all of his allotted time hunting Teton-area grizzlies with a camera, having drawn the eighth spot for a hunt inside the DMA.
“They just got off the endangered species list and we’re already hunting them this year,” he said Wednesday. “Management shouldn’t always be done with a gun.”
Mangelsen was brought up hunting for a food source and has tried bear. But he has also been the face of national opposition for grizzly hunting in Wyoming.
“I don’t think they were expecting this backlash to their decision [to offer hunts]. They didn’t do their homework,” he said of state officials. “I have nothing against hunting, but there’s something sick about killing trophy animals for fun.”
Mangelsen pegged the odds of overturning the delisting decision at about 50/50 and said he’ll be watching for news of the decision with great interest.
“I hope the judge looks at the case carefully and has a good heart,” he said.
The Game and Fish hasn’t been waiting for a judgment and has been busy preparing hunters through mandatory classes before hunts can begin Saturday. Bear Wise Coordinator Dusty Lasseter taught the class in Lander, which emphasized gender identification, ecology, safety and history to the hunters who drew the right to hunt in the lottery.
“Everybody was really supportive. People especially appreciated the gender identification part of the class,” Lasseter said Tuesday. Classes were taught in both Lander and Casper and available online. Lasseter said all he can do is push on and wait for the decision.
“It’s one of those things that’s not in our control,” he said. “We’ve done everything in our power to recover the species and now we need to be allowed to manage the population.”
Lasseter points to the success of black bears in Wyoming, which have a stable to increasing population despite being hunted without interruption in the state. Lasseter said he is confident of the same results with grizzlies.
“This is a success story,” Lasseter said. “The population has recovered and more science is available on this bear than any other population in the world.”
Outside of the demographic monitoring area, in places like the Heart Mountain area, state regulations will allow hunters to take any legal grizzly, excluding only females with cubs.
“The males aren’t driving the population like females are, but it’s up to hunters to choose [outside the DMA],” Lasseter said.
Ecologist Chuck Neal is dead set against the indiscriminate hunting of grizzlies outside the DMA and doesn’t support the delisting or hunting of Yellowstone grizzlies — even if there were 3,000 grizzlies in the habitat, he said.
“Those bears [outside the DMA] are the most important bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. They’re seeking their historic habitat,” Neal said. The Cody resident is an outspoken opponent of grizzly hunting and the author of a book on the subject, “Grizzlies in the Mist.”
Neal said the species will always be threatened because they’re cut off from other populations and genetically isolated.
“It’s the state’s thinly veiled agenda to eliminate all the bears outside the DMA. It’s an outrage,” he said. “They’re a natural part of our landscape and shouldn’t be treated like an alien pox.”
Regulations inside the DMA are a different story. Rules were written with the intention of keeping bear hunters out of sight of tourists and passing motorists. And should a sow be taken inside the DMA, the rest of the hunt in the area will be suspended.
Tags for hunts outside the DMA have already been sent, but hunts inside the DMA will be issued one at a time to ensure no more than one sow is harvested.
There have been 34 known and probable grizzly mortalities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so far in 2018, according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Of those, 17 have been euthanized for conflict issues, including a history of livestock predation or bold behavior toward humans, or for humane reasons, such as injuries or illness. All but nine of the 34 known and probable deaths occurred in Wyoming.
The last official estimate of the grizzly population inside the DMA, calculated in 2017, stood at 718 bears. The population counting method used by the interagency study team, known as Chao 2, is purposely conservative. Estimates ranging from 1,100-1,200 bears inside the DMA, which includes Yellowstone National Park, are considered more accurate of the actual population. Bears outside the DMA are not included in population estimates.