UPDATE, September 24, 2018: A federal judge in Missoula has ruled against Fish and Wildlife Service and reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, putting a stop to the grizzly hunts that had been proposed in Wyoming and Idaho.
Grizzly Bear 399 is an international superstar residing in Grand Teton National Park. She’s thought to be more than 20 years old and has raised several litters of cubs. Like other grizzlies, she has short, rounded ears, a massive frame, and a dark brown coat “grizzled” with shimmering gray and white flecks. She often brings her cubs near humans seeking photo ops and drive-by hellos, and she remains placid despite the threat that motorists pose to her family―as she experienced in 2016 when her white-faced cub, nicknamed Snowy, was killed in an apparent hit-and-run.
Grizzly bears nearly disappeared from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem half a century ago. Today, hanging on in one of their last strongholds in the American West after a modest comeback, the remaining bears in this stretch of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are part of an effort to reestablish the region’s grizzly community.
Well, they were. Last summer, citing adequate recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decided to strip the Yellowstone bears’ Endangered Species protections. Then, in March, the state of Wyoming levied a new threat on the embattled bears: a proposal to permit the baiting and hunting of up to 24 grizzlies (including up to 14 females) near Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
A Grizzly History
When Lewis and Clark killed at least 43 grizzlies in 1804 and 1805 on their transcontinental route, they described the bears in their journals (and in their quirky spelling) as “monsters,” “verry large,” “tremendious looking animal, and extreemly hard to kill.” The explorers spotted the bears from the Dakotas into Idaho; back then, around 50,000 of them ranged throughout the western contiguous United States, from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Plains. Of course, Lewis and Clark did not know the “tremendious” role the bears played in the ecosystem, as top predators crucial to helping control prey species, as scavengers, and as seed dispersers and soil tillers.
Today it’s rare to spot a grizzly anywhere along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Their gradual decline coincided with the arrival of Europeans, who extinguished the majestic beasts as they moved west. Fewer than 1,800 of the bears still live in the Lower 48, in only five ecosystems within Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming. In the Greater Yellow Ecosystem, they are estimated to number around 700.
By 1975, with only 6 of 37 grizzly populations remaining, the FWS had listed the species as threatened and put it under federal protection. Killing a bear became a federal and state offense that could bring up to a year in jail and $50,000 in penalties. In the ensuing years, the bears made a resurgence, but habitat loss, isolation, increasing conflict with humans, naturally slow reproduction, various impacts of climate change, and other challenges kept their numbers low.
Despite the ongoing threats to their long-term survival, in June 2017 U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delisted the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bears. Almost immediately, special-interest groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Safari Club pushed for permission to hunt them—as they have with other carnivores like black bears, mountain lions, and gray wolves. Within the Yellowstone ecosystem, Wyoming is currently the only state that has formally proposed a grizzly hunting season, although Idaho is also considering allowing a hunt for a single bear this fall.
This proposal is out of sync with what much of North American society wants for the future of grizzly bears, says NRDC wildlife advocate Zack Strong. Two-thirds of Americans oppose the idea of hunting the animals. Last year, British Columbia ended grizzly bear hunting altogether, and more than 170 tribal nations have signed a treaty opposing the delisting and trophy hunting.
Hunting may even place hunters at risk. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warns that “a mortally wounded bear usually lives long enough to seriously injure its attacker” and advises that pepper spray—not a gun—is “by far the best known method of preventing attack and injury.”
Grizzlies: A Danger or In Danger?
As reasons for permitting hunting, wildlife officials point to a rebounding population and the need to protect livestock and prevent conflicts with people.
But Strong points out that a grizzly hunting season is unlikely to reduce clashes, as hunters are unlikely to target conflict bears. “There is no good reason to allow grizzly bear hunting or baiting,” he adds. “Instead, given all the threats grizzlies still face, there are a lot of good reasons not to.”
Between January 2000 and June 2017, a total of 46 bear attacks resulting in human deaths took place in North America, involving both brown and black bears. Meanwhile, far more bears have succumbed to people. In 2017 alone, there were at least 39 human-caused grizzly deaths in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. While experts say the number of bear attacks in recent years—while still very rare—has been on the rise, the cause is often due to human behavior, and the solution is to become more “bear aware.”
Other kinds of human–grizzly conflicts are also rare but can unfold in many ways: The bears have been known to attack livestock, feast on carcasses, damage property, invade campgrounds, and charge at hunters or hikers when startled or frightened. Often the bears are simply hungry. They follow their noses to leftover-laden Dumpsters or bowls of dog chow left outdoors and become “nuisance bears,” which can lead to their extermination.
These direct conflicts are not the only source of stress for the bear population, of course. Grizzles already suffer numerous threats that result indirectly from human actions, Strong points out. Climate change has resulted in a shortage of whitebark pinecone seeds, a major food source; hunters looking for black bears can mistakenly shoot grizzlies; and cars traveling through bear habitat can also be deadly, as was the case with the cub of Grizzly Bear 399. “There are plenty of things that bears are struggling to overcome, and the last thing they need is to be killed for sport,” Strong says.
Today more than 32,000 grizzlies still roam Alaska, and another 15,000 occupy a broad swath of British Columbia. But in the Lower 48, there are only small pockets of bears, and the individual populations do not often crossbreed or interact. Ideally, the Yellowstone grizzlies would be protected and allowed to increase in number until members of their population (most likely, the more adventurous males) could connect with bears in northwestern Montana. This could help ensure the bears’ health and genetic diversity, Strong says.
The Value of a Living Bear Versus the License to Kill It
Currently, in the face of the Yellowstone grizzly’s delisting and Wyoming’s hunting proposal, many wildlife advocates are focused on protecting the bears’ existing numbers as a baseline. NRDC and other groups have been working with ranchers for years to find nonlethal solutions to help foster coexistence with the bears. Successful attempts so far have included electric fencing, removal of decaying livestock carcasses (which attract grizzly diners), the use of range riders on horseback who monitor and correct bear activity, livestock guard dogs, bear spray, and bear-resistant garbage cans.
Meanwhile, in court, environmental attorneys are hoping to overturn the delisting decision (which would also put a stop to hunting), pointing to the Yellowstone population’s genetic isolation and the FWS’s failure to consider the grizzlies’ historical range in its decision to delist them. Any further decline of the Yellowstone bear numbers makes their reunion with the more northern grizzly populations even less likely, threatening their genetic diversity and long-term survival.
It’s not only environmentalists who support the upholding of grizzly bear protections. The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter expressing concerns about trophy hunting in the popular tourist destination, which draws grizzly enthusiasts from around the world. And it appears that even the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is aware of the bad optics: The agency suggests prohibiting grizzly hunting near highways, where millions of visitors pass through to view wildlife.
“They’re trying to avoid harming certain bears that are well known and hanging out in those areas,” Strong says. “Grizzly 399 is seen all the time, and seen near the roads. If she wanders outside the closed-hunting area and doesn’t have cubs with her, she could easily be killed, and there would be international outrage.”
But the Wyoming Game and Fish Department may be more inclined to side with the hunting lobby than with the conservationists and tourism agencies, in an apparent conflict of interest. In 2017 the Wyoming legislature cut $6 million in funding to the department. Since then, it relies almost entirely on hunters, anglers, and trappers paying license fees and on federal excise revenue coming from the sale of hunting, shooting, and fishing equipment. In other words, the department’s sustenance depends on the pursuit and killing of wildlife.
A public comment period on the proposal runs until April 30, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s vote comes on May 23. The cost of grizzly bear licenses was previously set by the Wyoming legislature. How much would a Wyoming hunter pay for the opportunity to put a grizzly bear head on his or her wall? Just $600.
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