Wyoming will petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to return management of the grizzly bear, now protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, to the state, Gov. Mark Gordon said Thursday.
Grizzly numbers reached federal recovery goals in 2003, Gordon said, and now exceed 1,000 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wyoming has spent some $52 million over 46 years ensuring grizzly bear conservation, he said.
The petition, to be filed in coming weeks, will be specific to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of bruins and the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, Gordon said.
Why it matters
Conflicts between grizzly bears and people have increased over recent decades as the number of bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has increased.
Many observers believe the growing number of bears is responsible for an increase in conflicts. Another school of thought — advanced by Montana grizzly scientist David Mattson — is that a loss of foods in core habitat areas has forced bears to travel farther to seek sustenance, increasing the frequency of human-bear interactions. Yellowstone cutthroat trout and whitebark pine nuts are two key parts of the bear’s historic diet that have diminished in recent years, according to scientists.
Wyoming planned a grizzly bear hunting season in 2018 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal ESA protections guarding the species. A judge subsequently prevented the action and blocked the hunt, which had a proposed quota of up to 24 bears.
As legal wrangling continued, a federal appeals court in 2020 questioned Wyoming’s assertions that the species no longer needs federal oversight. The court later determined there were several problems regarding Wyoming’s position, and the bear remains protected today.
One was that Wyoming hadn’t committed to changing a minimum population goal if it also changed the way it counts grizzlies. By adopting a new, more accurate counting method to replace previous, conservative systems, the official count of grizzlies could increase.
Without a corresponding increase in the baseline goal, a several-hundred bear “surplus” would suddenly exist on paper. That surplus might then be expendable through hunting or other actions, a prospect the court found unsettling.
The court also questioned whether the isolated GYE population would suffer genetically if hunts and other states-sanctioned policies effectively severed potential migration routes between Yellowstone and grizzly populations in Montana.
Who said what
Gordon said Wyoming will “directly address those concerns.” The state will amend its management plan to resolve worries regarding methods that estimate the number of bears and how those estimates relate to baseline population goals.
Wyoming also will help ensure genetic diversity. The state “will provide for transportation of bears into the populations,” Gordon said.
A conservation organization panned Gordon’s plan.
“Federal officials should reject this outrageous request, which aims to turn Wyoming’s imperiled grizzly bears into trophy hunting targets,” Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have shown repeatedly that they’ll do anything to appease special interests like the agricultural industry and trapping associations. These states just can’t be trusted to manage grizzly bears.”
Gordon said grizzly bear numbers in the Yellowstone ecosystem are “far beyond all scientific requirements” for delisting. The only roadblocks are legal and administrative, he suggested.
Wyoming can manage the species appropriately, Gordon said. “We are committed to long-term grizzly bear conservation.”