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Wyoming’s Extreme Grizzly Bear Trophy Hunting Proposal Threatens Recovery

Bonnie Rice  /  April 26, 2018  /  6 Min Read  /  Activism

Grizzlies climb the high peaks of western Montana and Wyoming for nutritious army cutworm moths which can provide bears with up to half their yearly calories in 30 days—the moths act much like salmon do for coastal grizzlies. Photo: Steven Gnam

Here in Greater Yellowstone it’s been a long winter, but a few signs of spring are coming, including grizzly bears emerging from their dens. I just saw reports from Yellowstone National Park that a couple of male grizzly bears, the first to emerge, were out and about and looking for their first meal in months.

Unfortunately, grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region are waking up to a different reality this year. Last summer, despite overwhelming opposition from the general public and dozens of tribal nations, the Yellowstone grizzly bear population was removed from the Endangered Species list after more than forty years of protection.

And what we feared would happen after came true. Less than a year after Yellowstone grizzly bears were delisted and their management was turned over to the Yellowstone states, Wyoming and Idaho are planning trophy hunts. Under a tri-state agreement, bear kills are divvied up between those states and Montana. Montana has thankfully taken a much more reasoned and conservative stance; they’ve passed on a 2018 hunt, citing litigation and conservation concerns.

But Wyoming’s proposal—now open for public comment—allows two dozen grizzly bears be killed for “sport.” Twelve of those grizzlies could be killed inside what’s known as the demographic monitoring area (DMA)—an area that includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and portions of the national forests surrounding them—where live and dead bears are counted toward recovery goals and mortalities cannot exceed a certain limit. Twelve others would be hunted outside of that boundary. Inside the monitored area, two females and ten males can be killed. Outside this arbitrary DMA line, however, there are no limits for males versus females. That means a total of fourteen females could be killed in Wyoming’s proposed 2018 trophy hunt.

A mother and her three grizzly cubs in northwest Montana. Photo: Steven Gnam

A mother and her three grizzly cubs in northwest Montana. Photo: Steven Gnam

Sierra Club is strongly opposed to all trophy hunting of grizzly bears, but any proposal that allows this many female bears to be killed in one year is particularly irresponsible and reckless. The importance of female bears to the long-term health of the population, and to the recovery of grizzly bears throughout the lower 48, cannot be overstated. Because grizzly bears are so slow to reproduce, killing females can have a rapid and detrimental impact on the population. It takes a female approximately ten years to replace herself in the population as they generally don’t start having cubs until about five years of age. They only reproduce every three years and typically give birth to one or two cubs per litter—half of which do not survive to adulthood. It has taken forty years of endangered species protection to increase the population by roughly 500 bears (there are about 700 now in the Yellowstone region), and the growth rate of the population has been essentially flat since the early 2000s, largely due to record-high levels of human-related grizzly bear deaths in recent years—even without hunting.

And under this extreme proposal, grizzly bears can even be baited in some areas. It begs the question: What’s wrong with Wyoming?

Wyoming officials must understand the economic benefits that result from the millions of people who come from all over the world to the Yellowstone region for the chance to see a grizzly bear, right? Well, partially. Wyoming’s proposal does create a small buffer zone around the east side of Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway that connects Grand Teton and Yellowstone. That’s because the state knows a national outcry would result from a famous bear like 399 being killed in a trophy hunt. The state’s own figures show that revenue from wildlife watching trips was $365 million in 2016, two and a half times the amount spent on big game hunting trips and licenses. But alarmingly, there is no buffer proposed around Yellowstone National Park. This includes areas on mountain slopes in the national forests to the east of Yellowstone where bears congregate to feed on army cutworm moths—a critical protein source for their survival. Other than in the small buffer zone proposed around part of Grand Teton, any grizzly bear that steps over national park boundaries could be shot.

Idaho has just announced that it also plans to initiate a hunt, for its allocated share of the hunting mortality, which is one male bear. What’s problematic is that a hunter is highly unlikely to tell the difference between a male and female grizzly. In fact, many can’t tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear, as demonstrated by the number of “mistaken identity” grizzly bear deaths during hunting season.

But as most of the grizzly bear population is located in Wyoming, what Wyoming does is critical to whether there is continued progress toward full recovery. Frankly, Wyoming’s trophy hunt proposal is designed to reduce the population of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region over time and to severely limit their distribution outside of a core area around the national parks.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead must hear the national opposition to this proposal. Killing these majestic grizzly bears, in arguably the most iconic area in the lower 48 states, just for a trophy on the wall is not acceptable. Recently, trophy hunting of grizzly bears was outlawed in British Columbia where approximately 15,000 grizzly bears roam.

People and bears can co-exist peacefully. Photo: Steven Gnam

People and bears can co-exist peacefully. Photo: Steven Gnam

Sierra Club and our partners are challenging the removal of endangered species protection for the Yellowstone grizzly bear population in court. The delisting rule is flawed and will not ensure long-term recovery of grizzlies in the Yellowstone region. The court has sped up the process and has set a schedule to make a decision on whether the delisting rule is legal by September 1—right when Wyoming’s hunt is supposed to begin and as bears are attempting to fatten up before hibernation. This decision and this hunt will especially affect female bears because they need to put on a lot of extra fat to be able to give birth and sustain cubs during hibernation.

Under endangered species protection, the state of the grizzly bear has improved but it’s certainly not yet where it needs to be. Grizzly bears today occupy just 2-3% of their historic range in the lower 48. Four of the six recovery areas have either no bears at all or only a few dozen and none of the populations are connected to each other. This proposed hunt moves us backwards; persecution of grizzly bears through hunting, baiting and other cruel methods when they were managed by the states is what landed them on the endangered species list in 1975. The grizzly bear needs our support now more than ever. People and bears can co-exist peacefully. Trophy hunting should not be allowed. Instead, the focus should be on continued recovery and implementing proven methods to prevent conflicts and keep both bears and people safe. Additionally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s flawed Yellowstone delisting rule must be withdrawn until they can get it right—developing a rule that passes legal and scientific muster.

Secretary Zinke: Honor Tribal Sovereignty and Stop the Trophy Hunts!

Demand respect for Tribal sovereignty and wildlife! Tell Zinke: Reinstate grizzly protections, stop the trophy hunt and consult with Tribes now!

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