A debate over whether the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly bear population can thrive while being hunted will be put to the test this fall after Wyoming officials on Wednesday approved the state’s first grizzly hunt in 44 years.
The hunt, approved 7-0 by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, could allow as many as 22 grizzlies to be killed in a wide area east and south of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Hunt proponents and opponents made last-minute pleas before the commission, which held several public meetings on the hunt around the state and tweaked the hunt rules in response to some previous comments.
“Even with a hunting season, I believe there are going to be plenty of grizzly bears on the landscape for people to photograph and come and see,” Todd Stevie with the Sublette County Outfitters and Guides Association told the commission.
Environmentalists and nature photographer Tom Mangelsen, a Jackson Hole resident whose famous images include a salmon leaping into the gaping jaws of an Alaskan brown bear, doubted that.
“Killing grizzlies for fun, when there is ample scientific evidence that the population is not growing, food sources have already been diminished, and the further effects of climate change is unknown, is preposterous,” Mangelsen told the commissioners.
Hunt opponents made up a majority of the two dozen or so people who spoke up at the live-streamed commission meeting in Lander, a town of about 7,600 at the outer reaches of the ever-expanding range of Yellowstone-region grizzlies.
The region also includes parts of Montana and Idaho and is home to some 700 grizzlies, up from 136 when they were listed as a threatened species in 1975. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal protections for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in 2017.
Montana has not yet allowed grizzly hunting. Idaho will allow one grizzly to be hunted this fall. Hunting has been ongoing in Alaska where grizzlies and their minimally differentiated brown bear and Kodiak bear relatives are common.
“We heard from the people of Wyoming, they were supportive of this. It’s pretty clear the science supports this,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman Renny MacKay.
If legal challenges don’t intercede, hunting will begin Sept. 1 in the mountains and basins populated by relatively few grizzlies farthest from Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Hunting in a zone closer to the parks would begin Sept. 15 and end in all areas by Nov. 15.
As many as 12 grizzlies could be killed in the zone farther from the parks. Closer in, the limit is 10 and hunting would be stopped once 10 males or one female are killed, whichever happens first.
No more than one grizzly hunter at a time will be allowed in the closer-in zone to help ensure nobody accidentally exceeds the quota.
If demand for licenses is high, hunters might wait years for their chance. A computer program will randomly draw names of license applicants who would then pay $600 for a resident grizzly license and $6,000 if they live elsewhere.
Names will be drawn until 10 hunters have paid for their licenses and certified they’ve taken a firearms safety course. Each license will be valid for a 10-day window of opportunity.
If approved, hunting could account for a sizeable portion of grizzly deaths in the region this year but not likely the biggest. Of the 56 known and suspected deaths of Yellowstone grizzlies in 2017, 40 were caused by people including 19 killed by elk hunters and others in self-defense.
Environmentalists told the commission Wyoming has little leeway to allow hunting without exceeded mortality thresholds it agreed to as part of taking over management of the bears from the federal government.
“This proposal will set grizzly bear recovery back by decades. With all the threats the Yellowstone grizzly bear continues to face, it is irresponsible,” Bonnie Rice with the Sierra Club told the commission.
Not just hunters but ranchers, whose sheep and cattle often fall victim to roaming bears in western Wyoming, welcomed the opportunity for hunting to keep grizzly numbers in check.
“I know ‘management’ seems to have gotten a dirty name. But that’s the way we have to do it if want these animals to continue in the state,” said Charles Price, a rancher and former Game and Fish commissioner. “Hunting must be part of the management system.”