Don’t let states manage grizzly bears to extinction

Wyoming and Idaho proposed limited hunts after federal protections were removed.

 

Wendy Keefover is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is the native carnivore protection manager for The Humane Society of the United States, based in Colorado.


Once the federal government gave Wyoming and Idaho the authority to manage grizzly bears, one thing was certain: Animals would die. The change will also mean lasting losses for local economies within the grizzly’s range.

Over the last three years, the 700 or fewer grizzly bears that roam the Yellowstone ecosystem have faced an unsustainable mortality rate, with about 175 deaths. Even so, last June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stripped Endangered Species Act protections from these bears and turned over their management to wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

A grizzly bear near Swan Lake, in Yellowstone National Park.

Now, Wyoming and Idaho have proposed “historic” grizzly bear trophy hunts, marking the first time that grizzly bears have been legally hunted in the lower 48 states since 1975. At first glance, the planned quotas seem relatively small: 24 bears in Wyoming, and one bear in Idaho. Upon closer scrutiny, though, the picture becomes clearer: Killing grizzlies for trophies, on top of other threats, could drive the bears back to the brink of extinction.

What’s at stake? In the early 1800s, somewhere between 47,000 and 72,000 grizzly bears existed in the lower 48 states, according to David Mattson, a wildlife biologist and grizzly bear expert. Now, they number fewer than 2,000. Yet state agencies target this isolated population living within and around Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

Culling the largest, healthiest members, as hunters typically do by targeting “trophy” males, means that hunting will weaken the gene pool. Other bears will die inadvertently, as the remaining males vie for mates and space. Moreover, whenever a hunter kills a mother bear, it is likely to cause the deaths of her dependent bear cubs. That will also reduce reproduction and recruitment, sparking a dangerous downward spiral for an already fragile population.

Management of these bears relies on an agreement signed by Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, which lays out particular zones within which the bears have varying levels of protection. Within the national parks, no hunting of grizzly bears is allowed. But immediately outside of the parks, there lies an area within which the three states collectively manage the bear population, divvying up available hunting quotas and providing scant protections beyond maintaining a population minimum of 500 bears. Top conservation biologists agree that the grizzly bear population has not yet fully recovered and say it was prematurely delisted under the Endangered Species Act. The delisting will allow the population to decline by more than 200 bears to the minimum population of 500 bears. This is well past the point of no return at which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to intervene.

A major danger to the bears is the lack of “buffer zones” around the parks’ perimeter, which means that all Wyoming grizzly bears — including those residing part-time in the parks — are in the crosshairs. Over the objections of many conservation groups as well as of Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, Wyoming and Idaho will allow hunting right up to the borders of the parks.

A grizzly bear sow and cubs in Yellowstone National Park.

Of course, bears don’t recognize borders; their instinct is to move in and out of the parks according to the seasonal availability of food. But the moment the animals step out of the parks, they become targets. Hunters can even kill bears with the help of smelly bait piles in two zones in Wyoming, a method of killing that makes a mockery of the concept of “fair chase.”

Wyoming and Idaho have made it plain that they will manage the hunting of the bears extremely aggressively. If this is management, it is a travesty.

Like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem itself, our grizzly bears are national treasures essential to tourism. According to a 2017 report, travel spending in Wyoming amounted to $8.9 million per day, for a total of $3.2 billion in 2016. Wyoming’s tourism has increased annually by 4.3 percent since 2000, with visitors supporting 32,000 Wyoming jobs and generating $894 million in salaries in the travel industry, and $171 million in 2016 in state and local taxes.

With tourism keeping Wyoming’s local economies humming, Wyoming and Idaho ought to manage their grizzly bear populations for sustainability and the benefit of all Americans. Bears don’t exist merely for the small number of hunters who want a self-portrait with a dead bear to “show off” on social media, along with a mounted trophy for their living-room wall.

There is still time to act. Citizens can submit comments to Wyoming and Idaho on the web here (Wyoming) and here (Idaho). Wyoming will accept comments until April 30 and Idaho until May 3. The Wyoming Game Commission will decide the fate of Yellowstone-area bears at its May 23 hearing in Lander.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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