The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is currently in the throes of a debate over whether they should allow grizzly bear trophy hunting. If the commission votes to allow the practice, it would be the state’s first legal hunt of Yellowstone grizzly bears in over 40 years.
The news comes less than a year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears from the endangered species list. As NPR’s Colin Dwyer reported last year, the bears had received federal protection since 1975, when there were just 136 of the creatures left in the greater Yellowstone area. By last year, that number swelled to 700 individuals.
According to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the slow-to-reproduce population’s growth is “one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners.” As such, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that they no longer need federal protection and delegated future conservation efforts to the states.
Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have taken different approaches to grizzly conservation, amid conflicts between trophy hunters and conservationists, who do not believe the population is stable enough to sustain hunting. Montana decided against grizzly hunting for this year, “citing pending lawsuits and a wish to move cautiously as the species nears recovery,” writes Rob Chaney for The Missoulian. Idaho, for their part, will be allowing just one trophy hunter a “grizzly tag” for the fall hunting season. The Wyoming proposal, as Washington Post’s Karin Brulliard reports, would allow the hunting of up to 22 bears, making it the largest grizzly hunt, if it gets approved.
Experts are divided on the question of how this hunt would truly affect the grizzly population, which remains relatively small despite its new non-endangered status. Wildlife biologist Frank van Manen, who prepared the most recent grizzly bear population report for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, believes that limited hunting will be safe for the bears. As Van Manen tells Explore Big Sky, grizzlies were getting so numerous that the Yellowstone ecosystem was “basically reaching carrying capacity” for the species.
“There’s no place for young bears to establish home ranges of their own,” he says. “Those are the bears that get into less suitable habitat, get in trouble and usually end up dead.”
However, a diverse coalition of biologists, wildlife advocates, and Native American leaders have condemned the grizzly hunting proposition. A group of 73 biologists and scholars recently wrote Wyoming governor Matt Mead a letter expressing that the grizzly population remains vulnerable despite recent growth, and the hunt would only add stress to the species as they continue to lose food sources and clash with humans.
Tribal nations from across the state of Wyoming have also written letters of opposition to the hunt, saying it would breach their historic grizzly conservation treaties that more than 200 nations have signed.
“Grizzly bears have only just begun to recover, and hunting could sabotage that process,” Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells the Washington Post.
Even if the Wyoming wildlife commission decides to allow the hunt, it might still be stymied by the current legal battle over the grizzlies’ conservation status. Six groups, including four conservation organizations, one independent attorney, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for removing the grizzly from the endangered species list. Federal district judge Dana Christensen has put the cases on a fast track in hopes of coming to a decision before the grizzly hunting season begins this fall.