LANDER – Wyoming moved closer to its first authorized grizzly bear hunt in 45 years Wednesday afternoon when the Game and Fish Commission unanimously approved regulations for a fall hunt.
The highly controversial proposed season attracted thousands of public comments from Wyoming, all over the United States and from other countries, plus more than two dozen opponents and proponents spoke during a four-hour session before the commission voted 7-0 in favor of the Game and Fish department’s plan without making any amendments.
“This is a good day,” said agency chief game warden Brian Nesvik.
From an administrative standpoint this was Wyoming’s final step prior to preparing for a hunt, but several legal actions are pending in federal court in Missoula in August that could halt any hunt indefinitely.
Nesvik and Dan Thompson, department large carnivore specialist, presented the case to the commission after years of monitoring, population recovery efforts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting the Yellowstone grizzly from the Endangered Species Act last summer.
That action returned management of the bears to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and with scientific evidence indicating there are more than 700 grizzlies in the area compared to a low of 136 in the 1970s, Wyoming Game and Fish determined it wants a hunt in its repertoire of management tools.
The vote sets in motion a hunt that could harvest as many as 22 grizzlies between September and November inside and outside a key monitoring zone. However, if a single female grizzly is killed within the Demographic Monitoring Area the hunt halts immediately.
Implementing rules for a hunt represents a dramatic improvement in the status of the Yellowstone grizzly, but many charge conducting a hunt now is premature and will stymie further population recovery.
“I do not support grizzly bear trophy hunting,” said author Leslie Patten, who lives in Sunlight Basin. “We just delisted the bear and Wyoming is going to rush to hunt the bear.”
However, top Game and Fish officials heralded the establishment of the rules as a milestone moment in the bounceback of the Yellowstone grizzly from its nadir in the early 1970s.
“This is absolutely a historic moment in the history of Wyoming conservation,” said Game and Fish director Scott Talbott. “This is a very conservative proposal. We are very confident in no way will it impact the population.”
Wyoming officials and others who monitor grizzlies have said many times there are more likely 1,000-1,200 bears on the landscape. But for this purpose they elected to employ the 700 figure based on an extremely conservative counting system.
Nesvik called the Yellowstone grizzly’s recovery – which Wyoming has poured approximately $50 million into over the decades – “One of the greatest conservation recovery” stories in the world.
Nesvik said “by all measures” of scientific evidence, the grizzly has been recovered since 2004. It was temporarily delisted from federal protection in 2007 and 2008, but restored to the Endangered Species list because of questions about the reliability of one food source, whitebark pine.
Several academic papers published over the last few years demonstrate the bears are “opportunistic omnivores,” changing eating patterns regularly
This is a two-pronged hunt. The Demographic Monitoring Area covers the kind of habitat territory the bears need to thrive, exempting Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Since the 1970s, the slowly-reproducing bears have expanded their range considerably, encroaching more on the Cody area.
Bears living outside the monitoring area, where habitat is not nearly as good, are not counted in the totals. It is not known how many bears live there.
The hunt quota for the DMA is one female and 10 males. Hunters will be allowed into the field one by one. Whenever a female is killed the hunt is halted. If the first 10 bears taken are males, the hunt is halted. That hunt season is set for Sept. 15-Nov. 15.
Outside the DMA, 12 bears can be harvested between Sept. 1 and Nov 15.
Hunters will not be able to shoot within 1/4 mile of a major road.
Thompson explained to the crowd of about 50 people at The Inn at Lander that the preceding year’s mortality rate will determine the number of bears that can be hunted each season.
Mothers with dependent cubs cannot be hunted.
“We have never exceeded the mortality threshold for dependent young,” Thompson said.
And, he reminded the audience, “Remember, animals are being born every year, as well.”
Under the plan, 75 percent of the licenses are reserved for Wyoming residents and 25 percent for nonresidents. In-state resident cost is $600, and the out-of-state cost is $6,000.
The license application period is July 2-16. A random draw will select the license winners. The hunter will have 10 days to pay the entire license cost or forfeit the opportunity.
Just one hunter will be allowed into the field at a time.
License holders who fail to get a chance before the hunt is shut down will be refunded their money.
Following Nesvik’s and Thompson’s opening arguments, the commission heard from 27 speakers.
Many representatives of the same groups previously contributed similar sentiments during the open public comment period this spring.
“I don’t think I heard anything I didn’t read,” said commissioner Peter Dube, who said he read thousands of comments.
Thompson provided a summary that accounted for 3,334 individual statements. The Natural Resource Defense Council sent 58,139 forms opposing the hunt, but were counted as one comment since they were identical. Some 407 comments came from Wyoming addresses, 2,796 from other U.S. states and 131 from foreign addresses.
Commission president Mark Anselmi did not set a time limit for speakers and asked them to stay on point and remain civil.
Opponents of the hunt derided it as “trophy hunting,” called it appalling that bear baiting could be allowed (under rare, pre-approved circumstances), and said it would harm Wyoming’s tourist economy and will hurt continued bear recovery.
Representing the Sierra Club, Bonnie Rice issued “strong opposition to trophy hunting” while calling the grizzly bear the essence of wildlife and a cornerstone of the ecosystem. The hunt, she said, “will be seen by the world as unethical.”
Chris Colligan, wildlife coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said he is a hunter, but “grizzly bears are different” because of slow reproduction and game managers “don’t have the margin for error we have with other species.”
Jonathan Proctor, of Defenders of Wildlife, urged the commission to pour money into public education and the agency Bear Wise program and “not a premature hunting program.”
Those supporting the proposal said it is long overdue, there are too many human-bear conflicts, and scientific studies indicate the bears recovered long ago.
“The grizzly bear is a fully recovered species,” said Sy Gilliland, vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association.
A statement was read for Cody’s Joe Kondelis, president of the Western Bear Foundation, and he said, “There are significant guardrails in place to prevent overharvest.”
After four hours of testimony, the commissioners did not debate issues or suggest any changes to the Game and Fish department plan.
“This is another chapter in decades of work,” Thompson said. “We still have litigation looming.”