Grizzly hunts: Final details to be decided in Lander on Wednesday

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As Wyoming moves toward the first grizzly hunt in decades, one big step will take place next week, when Game and Fish commissioners vote on regulations legalizing the fall season.

A large crowd is expected as commissioners hear testimony on both sides.

“The issue is polarized. A lot of people are adamantly opposed the hunting grizzlies,” said Daniel Thompson, Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore section supervisor. “This is a fairly historic moment.”

The final details will be hammered out in Lander on Wednesday. Beginning at 10 a.m., Game and Fish commissioners will meet at The Inn Peaks Conference Center to discuss and vote on the potential hunting season.

Should the commission approve the proposed hunts, up to 11 grizzlies could be taken within the demographic monitoring area (DMA) and another 12 outside boundaries drawn to signify acceptable habitat. Within the DMA, only two females may be taken, and once the limit of two is reached, the hunt will be called off, regardless of the total number of bears taken. Outside the DMA, the rules are more liberal.

The spread of grizzlies well beyond the intended habitat is cited as one of the reasons for the season. Official population estimates are just over 700 individual bears, but officials involved have said the count is biased to a low count. Some estimates put the population closer to 1,200. Hunts will help lower conflicts, Thompson said.

“Hunting is a great management tool outside suitable habitat,” Thompson said.

It’s no secret hunting has its critics. Some find the thought of hunting the recently delisted species irresponsible. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition was thrilled when Montana

decided to delay setting a season, passing on a 2018 hunt. The coalition is asking Wyoming to wait, too, and require a five-year moratorium on hunting the bears.

“Rather than feed the narrative that states are rushing to hunt bears as soon as they are removed from the ESA, we ask Wyoming to delay the onset of hunting, as the state of Montana did this past March,” said Chris Colligan, GYC wildlife program coordinator, in the group’s official release. “Montana cited low allowable female discretionary mortality (a similar concern in Wyoming) and ongoing litigation as the justification for this decision.”

The GYC is the only conservation group with offices in Park County. Colligan knows the group is one of the major opponents in this debate. Yet the active outdoor sportsman, raised in a hunting family with personally harvested wild game in his freezer, doesn’t want to be seen as the enemy.

“I work with Dan [Thompson] often,” Colligan said. “We see eye-to-eye on many things, but not everything.”

While the group is asking for five years, Colligan hopes the commission will at least delay the currently proposed season.

“The prudent measure would be to make the call to wait a year,” Colligan said.

He disputes that the hunts will be a useful tool in managing populations. Colligan claims the underlying premise — that hunting will decrease conflicts — is false.

“There’s relatively little science hunting will reduce conflicts,” he said.

The timing of the meeting coincides with the end of hibernation and the beginning of tourist season — Wyoming’s second-largest industry.

“Bears wake and head to lower elevations looking for food and get in trouble,” Thompson said.

There have already been conflicts this year. So far, four grizzlies have been “removed,” that is, killed, by wildlife managers, all in Park County. Three resulted from conflict situations and one was a humane act, euthanizing an old bear that was unable to lift its hind legs, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Two of the bears were inside the DMA, two outside. Three more grizzly mortalities were reported, but are still under investigation and the cause hadn’t been released as of press time.

The terminology for dealing with conflicts are disarming. Grizzlies are either relocated or removed. Relocation is just how it sounds: A bear is trapped and moved far enough away so that they are no longer a threat. Spring is a tough time for reloactions, Thompson said. Weather restricts the areas where they can be moved. This year, snow accumulation is at 171 percent above normal, reducing the options to a scant few.

Removal sounds somewhat innocuous, but it’s the lethal means of dealing with a conflict. Individual bears are typically moved several times before being removed, Thompson said. Game and Fish biologists hate exercising the option. Losing a grizzly that’s been studied, sometimes for more than a decade, is a bad day at work for the state’s large canivore scientists.

A large boar near Meeteetse was euthanized earlier this month. It had been captured and moved previously, but was feeding on livestock. Several factors go into the decision. This one included its history, location and lack of an available location deep in the wilderness.

“It’s a well thought-out process and he [the bear] was well outside the DMA,” Thompson said.

This time last year, the county had already heard details of a human attack near Clark: A shed hunter surprised a sleeping bear and was injured. There were no fatal attacks reported in 2017.

In Park County, there is more support for hunting than most places in the state and country. At recent Game and Fish scoping meetings, there have been more concerns voiced about the quotas on the species being too conservative. Colligan attended last month’s Yellowstone Grizzly Coordination Committee — which helps guide policy for the species — and was displeased with the lack of discussion about the effects of hunting so soon after delisting.

The State of Idaho set regulations for its grizzly hunting season last week, setting a quota of just one bear.

Both Thompson and Colligan hope for a civil debate during Wednesday’s Game and Fish Commission meeting in Lander. Very few involved in the debate think the commission will vote to delay hunts. Pending litigation over the delisting of the species, which is set to be resolved in late summer, could be the final hurdle before the season starts. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition isn’t involved in the litigation, but is watching with great interest.

“Our image is at stake with the decisions made,” Colligan said. “Hunting [grizzlies] will affect tourism.”

JACKSON (WNE) — State wildlife managers have halved the number of female grizzly bears that hunters could target this fall, a change that means hunters will be limited to one-at-a-time access in the core of the species’ range in Wyoming.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department announced last week that it downsized its female grizzly hunt quota from two bears to one during the 2018 season. It’s a significant change because it means the grizzly hunt in much of the Yellowstone region will now be shut down after a single sow is killed. The reduction came after a debate over whether Wyoming rightly “rounded up” its 1.45-bear share of the female grizzlies that can be legally hunted in the tri-state Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Game and Fish Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik said the change is not a concession that Wyoming erred, but was rather made out of caution.

“It seemed like a conservative approach and the right thing to do,” Nesvik said.

Montana and Idaho officials agreed during a winter meeting that Wyoming could hunt two female grizzlies, he said.

“We all agreed at that meeting ... that we would start with two female bears,” Nesvik said. “And that hasn’t changed. We still believe that is the agreement and that is the authority that exists.”

Outside an ecosystem-interior “demographic monitoring area,” Wyoming has more leeway over its grizzly hunt, and there is no separate cap on the number of female grizzlies. A total of 12 grizzlies could be killed in the outskirts area, known as hunt zone 7, this fall, and, technically, all could be grizzly sows.

The updated regulations would also clarify the process to obtain a license for hunt areas 1-6 (within the demographic monitoring area). Hunters high enough on the grizzly license list will be required to pay their license fee and provide proof of hunter education within 10 days of being notified. Additionally, the updated proposal would establish 10-day hunt periods in those areas.

The Game and Fish Department had heard concerns that hunt opponents would try flooding the license application process or, if awarded a license, try to slow the process.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will meet in Lander on Wednesday to discuss and vote on a potential grizzly bear hunting season.

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