A Wyoming wildlife commission will vote Wednesday, May 23, on whether to approve the state's first grizzly bear hunt in more than four decades, a proposal that could lead to the killing of as many as 22 bears just one year after Yellowstone-area grizzlies were removed from the endangered species list.
Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 were federally protected in 1975, when only about 136 of the animals remained in and around Yellowstone National Park. Their numbers had rebounded to about 700 by last year, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the Yellowstone population and leave its management to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Montana in February decided against opening a trophy hunt, and Idaho, home to the smallest number of grizzlies, this month approved a fall hunt of a single male bear.
Under Wyoming's proposal, a maximum of one female or 10 male grizzlies could be killed inside the state's section of a federally designated "demographic monitoring area" - a zone of "suitable" bear habitat where biologists track the species' population. Another 12, male or female, could be hunted outside that area. No hunting would be allowed inside Yellowstone, nearby Grand Teton National Park or the road that connects them. The Wyoming plan also includes a no-hunt buffer zone in a region east of Grand Teton where several bears adored by photographers and tourists are known to roam and den.
Federal biologists say limited hunting is unlikely to harm the overall grizzly population in the Yellowstone area, and Wyoming officials have described their proposal as conservative. "The question is not whether you hunt grizzly bears or not," Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, told C-SPAN earlier this month. "The question is whether grizzly bears have grown enough in terms of population and in habitat that they can be a sustainable species. And clearly they have."
But the hunting plan has faced heavy opposition from conservation groups and others who say it would imperil the population. More than 200 tribal nations have condemned the idea of hunting an animal they consider sacred and proposed to instead relocate grizzlies to tribal lands. More than 100 wildlife photographers wrote a letter calling on Mead to prioritize the wishes - and dollars - of tourists who come to the region in hopes of spotting "one of the most storied, beloved and photographed bear populations in the world."
In another recent letter to the governor, 73 scientists said the hunt would recklessly endanger a vulnerable population that has lost food sources, including white bark pine, due to climate change, and limit Yellowstone bears' ability to connect with a larger population of grizzlies in northwest Montana. (Those bears, in and around Glacier National Park, remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, although Fish and Wildlife is considering delisting them as well.)
The letter, written by the former federal grizzly bear biologist David Mattson, said allowing a dozen deaths outside the demographic monitoring area, where approximately 80 to 100 grizzlies live, would be "tantamount to planned extirpation," in that region. Hunting, it continued, "is ethically irresponsible, unwarranted and not in the public's interest."
Conservation organizations say hunting would add unnecessary deaths to the dozens of grizzlies killed by humans each year as the bears expand farther into developed areas.
"Grizzly bears have only just begun to recover, and hunting could sabotage that crucial process," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "People love these bears and don't want to see them killed just so somebody can put a trophy on the wall."
At least 56 grizzlies died within the demographic monitoring area last year, many after being hit by cars, shot in self-defense by hunters or lethally "removed" by wildlife agencies for killing livestock or seeking out human food. Of seven deaths recorded this year, four have been in Wyoming. Three were killed by state bear managers - one for breaking into a building for food, and two for "frequenting a calving area" and "bold behavior toward humans." The fourth, an elderly bear that could not lift its hind legs, was euthanized, according to federal records.
Like conservation groups, Wyoming officials cite those numbers as talking points, but they use them instead to justify a hunt. Hunters, they say, could help weed out problem bears.
"The agency is removing every year several female and male bears for conflict reasons, and if hunting reduces that, it's a good thing," Brian Nesvik, chief game warden for the state Game and Fish Department, told the Casper Star-Tribune.
Wyoming's proposal has gotten support from the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, a group that promotes hunting. Even if approved by the state game and fish commission on Wednesday, however, it could be stymied in court later this year.
Several lawsuits have challenged the delisting of Yellowstone grizzlies, and a U.S. District Court judge earlier this year ordered all parties to combine their arguments into a single set of briefs. A decision is expected this summer, before the September start of hunting seasons in Wyoming and Idaho.
Story by Karin Brulliard. Brulliard is a national reporter who runs the Animalia blog. Previously, she was an international news editor; a foreign correspondent in South Africa, Pakistan and Israel; and a local reporter. She joined The Post in 2003.