Game and Fish right to hold off on bear hunt


If you want to gauge just how fed-up Wyomingites have gotten with our state’s expanding grizzly bear population, consider Senate File 93 from the past legislative session.

Titled “Grizzly bear hunts,” the bill was a direct response to a federal judge blocking planned hunts in Wyoming and Idaho last September.

The gist of SF 93 goes something like this: “Who cares if a federal judge says we can’t hunt grizzlies? We should do it anyway — and if those people in California don’t like it, maybe they should try living with some of these bears in their backyards.”

That might sound like something you’d overhear a patron proclaiming at a local coffee shop or read in a Facebook rant. But, colorfully paraphrased, that’s what the Wyoming Legislature overwhelmingly passed and the governor signed a few months ago.

The law says the state can hold a grizzly bear hunt if it would benefit Wyoming’s wildlife and protect the state’s residents and visitors. It also says the state can send its bears to other states — specifically mentioning California — if the bears are trapped or set to be euthanized because of a conflict.

Of course, lawmakers noted during debate that the measure was more of a symbolic  expression of frustration than a serious policy measure.

Rather than actually creating a grizzly bear hunt, the bill only gave the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission the option to create the hunt.

“The reason we don’t say ‘shall’ is because we can’t ask our Game and Fish people to be convicted felons,” Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, told the Jackson Hole News&Guide in January.

Similarly, state Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, told the Tribune that the chance the commission would authorize a hunt was “very unlikely as the federal fines under the Endangered Species Act would be harsh and extreme.” Predictably, several environmental groups threatened to file a new lawsuit if the state tried moving forward.

It therefore should have come as no surprise that, during its April meeting, the Game and Fish Commission decided it would not schedule a grizzly hunt in defiance of U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen’s order.

And yet, a certain segment of the population was angered. On Facebook, various insults — a couple of them unprintable in this space — were hurled at the commissioners for not authorizing a hunt.

We understand, and share, the frustration about the failure of the judicial branch to recognize a healthy grizzly population, but the criticism of the commission is off-base.

However tempting it might be to try rolling over a judge’s order, the commissioners were right to hold off. Not only would an unauthorized hunt have likely resulted in legal trouble, thumbing our collective noses at the judiciary and the Endangered Species Act would have set a bad precedent. We are, after all, a nation of laws.

While our legal system has reached the wrong result thus far — twice restoring Endangered Species Act protections for what we believe is a recovered grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — we continue to believe the courts will get it right in the end. Don’t forget it was a favorable federal court ruling that led to Wyoming’s wolves being put back under state management and hunted.

Of course, with grizzly bears seeming to pop up in new places each year — like Byron — it’s getting harder to wait for delisting.

That’s why we hope our congressional delegation will put some serious work into fixing the laws that have allowed the Yellowstone area’s grizzly bears to remain under federal protections for much longer than necessary.

In addition to SF 93, the state Legislature also passed House Joint Resolution 1, which calls on Congress to swiftly delist the area’s grizzlies.

It’s possible that our senators and representative could slip some delisting language into an unrelated bill, but it would be much better if Congress would update the Endangered Species Act to better handle recovered populations.

Because, like the grizzlies’ presence, Wyoming’s frustration is only growing.