A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. (David Renwald/FlickrCC)

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.

History

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.”

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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.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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12 Comments

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  1. Too many grizzlies have been euthanized this year in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In Teton County two grandsons of grizzly 399 not even 4yrs old and recently Luna, daughter of grizzly 399, only 5yrs. All human caused. No citations, fines or mandates. The bear pays the ultimate price!! Wyoming Fish and Wildlife are helping Goverver Gordon’s wish come true. Euthanizing has been the answer and action too many times. I hope this comment section allows me to share the following link to a very informational post. It’s time to stop being bystanders.
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/1253793918411339/permalink/1338885639902166/

  2. The Native American voice is little heard in this consideration. Part of it, as I understand it, is the grizzly is not just another bear, it is sacred to many Native Americans. They didn’t hunt it as they did other animals. Well over 100 tribes have asked the state not to make this into a “trophy” hunt for pleasure and profit, rather than solely for management purposes. Turning the grizzly into a “trophy” is a violation of their culture, traditions, and the animal.
    I think most Wyomingites would respect that.

  3. Wyoming has already proven that it cannot “manage” the Grizzly population in the state. The state’s planned hunt fiasco a few years back is proof of that. Wyoming Fish & Game is an agency managed and staffed by hunters for hunters. Killing bears is all they know to do. In Wyoming, “manage” equals “hunting.” A species that reproduces slowly, with 50% of cubs not surviving to adulthood, cannot sustain an annual hunting season. Add to that the lack of connectivity of grizzlies in Wyoming to other breeding populations in the Northern Rockies and this will be a disaster for conservation.

    Just because the grizzly population has improved since being listed as endangered in 1974 does not mean it is recovered. At the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, there was an estimated 50,000-100,000 grizzly bears living from the southern Canadian Artic, down the Pacific coast, as far east as the western plains, and south into Northern Mexico. How is 700-1000 bears living in 2% of its former range considered recovered?

    The grizzly bear is not just another animal on the landscape. It is iconic, a symbol of the American West and all that is truly wild. It is a beast that lives in myth and legend, and humbles man. Homo Sapiens is an arrogant species, but to encounter a grizzly in the wild as I have done many times, reminds us of our place on the wheel of life.

    The ethics and philosophy of Aldo Leopold are entirely missing from Wyoming’s state wildlife agency.

  4. This is the GOOD fight! Agricultural and hunting interests have ran Wyoming almost into the ground. No feed left after the flocks and herds of sheep / cows eat everything that may have greened up after the last rain. A true Wyomingite stands up for what made Wyo a great state and could again. Wyoming was once called the North American Serengeti but not lately. Wolves and Grizzlies are integral to the health of the Rocky Mtn.’s from Mexico to Alaska. Let us provide them a place to roam, from the Dakotas to the Pacific coast.

    Bill Spillman

  5. GRIZZLY BEAR MANAGEMENT IS ALREADY AGREED TO:

    Designated grizzly bear habitat and population goals have already been agreed to in the existing State and Federal management plans. Exhaustive public comment was solicited and tens of thousands of comments were received. However, like most everything in our society, the net result was compromise and neither grizzly bear advocates or no grizzly bear advocates got their way. The bear habitat and population goals were established based on what was possible not what was wished for.

    The current occupied habitat greatly exceeds the designated habitat – the great bears have out migrated onto private and BLM land which was not identified as core habitat. This outward migration has caused human/grizzly/livestock conflicts which Game and Fish has had to contend with – the USFWS has depended on Game and Fishes existing resources – staff, vehicles, bear traps, tranquilizer guns, etc. – to relocate bears. In addition, current Wyoming law requires the State to compensate for livestock losses due to predators – this includes losses due to black bears, mountain lions and grizzles. All of these expenses, including costs of writing the management plans and legal expenses – are paid for by license sales from hunters and fisherman. Taxes paid by the public are not utilized to pay these expenses.

    Another problem with outward migration is that the ESA requires private landowners to bear the cost of providing habitat for T&E species on their private land without compensation. In most cases this isn’t a problem, but when it comes to grizzly bears that’s quite a burden . Therefore, core habitat was designated on Forest Service lands including wilderness areas, and National Parks. Example, the Shoshone National Forest contains the highest percent of wilderness of any forest in the lower 48; and therefore, was a wise choice for core habitat.

    Its best to stick with already agreed upon habitat and population goals. And don’t forget, the great bears are thriving under the current system – how about giving 200 bears to other states so they can establish their own populations. The grizzly bear recovery plans have been successful – bottom line.

  6. Gordon once more proves that western states are out to reduce to bare minimum required by Federal ESA –grizzlies, wolves & any other species that interfere with hunting & ranching.

  7. In the constitutional democratic republic we all profess to live in , there are issues best managed with the States Rights doctrine. grizzly Bear management is not one of them.

    The State of Wyoming’s first failure is insisting that every Grizzly bear inside the state boundary lines is somehow theirs to manage exclusively – more like state property or domestic livestock and less like a shared resource – on a per bear case by case basis using local belief systems. The actual mandate is that Ursus acrctos horribilis requires comprehensive management as a single population across at least three primary states and four secondary states extending into the adjacent Canadian provinces. Wyoming cannot isolate and constrain and probate bears inside its boundaries according to its own colloquial notions of managements. So the first requirement is to remove the state lines from the map of the western United States when proactively managing the bear population. There is no Yellowstone grizzly…there is no Wyoming grizzly… and bears don’t much use maps.

    Wyoming’s second failure is the hardcore belief that it can manage “down” the numbers of bears inside Wyoming an acceptable number between a presumptive “floor ” minimum and a “ceiling” of allowable bear numbers . Something like 400 bears is too few but 700 is too many. That’s ridiculous for several reasons, the most damning being that bear management is not and never should be primarily based on numbers to begin with, but instead on HABITAT, which itself is dynamic, always changing . Never mind that no man or beast has any clue what the actual census count of grizzlies might be… yet we insist on managing to a presumptive ‘ phantom’ number of bears.

    Speaking Truth to power and the Stockgrowers and trophy hunters: Wyoming should not manage ‘down’ to some number of bears inside a tightly defined region of the state delineated by barbed wire , highways, political boundaries and PowerPoint charts. Nope. All management of Grizzlies needs to be of one mind , one plan , one work order to manage ‘ OUT ‘ towards all the empty available prime grizzly bear habitat in the adjacent states and Northern Rockies . There are literally millions of acres where bears should be living by now, as they did for 15,000 years before some guy named Columbus walked a beach to plant a flag.

    No State wildlife management agency will do this, or can do this , all by themselves. Do not think for one microsecond that Wyoming and Idaho and Montana are all on the same page of Grizzly cooperation and coordination for the benefit of and sustaining of bear populations now and in the future. That is the third failure… the delusion that three Western States and their leadership heirachy will assure there is a future for the Grizzly collectively and separately. All three of those states hate bears. Their preferred tool for managing bears is the long rifle. Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho do not have any mechanism or pseudo-scientific bear wranglers willing and able to relocate a “surplus” bear from Wapiti Wyoming to the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness area in Idaho . But that is precisely where bears need to go , for starters.

    Bears are slowly making their way from the core Greater Yellowstone region over to the Selway Bitterroot already , but at a miniscule fraction of migrating numbers and incredibly slowly, with every mile of the way presenting impediments, obstacles, or political minefields. The greatest barrier to bears reclaiming their millions of acres former habitat in the Northern Rockies is the acceleration of Climate Change altering the habitat faster than anyone thought possible. Bears might get to the Selway Mountains from the Absarokas in sufficient numbers to establish new domain and range on their own in maybe a century’s time , give or take. We do not have a hundred years. I’m not sure we have a hundred months…

    Humans are clever , if motivated in their own self-interest . We can successfully relocate a Giant Panda bear from the bamboo jungles of southern China all the way to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. or Berlin. What will it take to get bears where they need to be from they are now ?

    The federal US Fish & Wildlife Service and the state’s own wildlife and/or game departments need to do just that. We already know the states will not . That right there is why Grizzly bears should not be handed over to the states for longterm management, because those states cannot do what needs be done . They don’t have the tools , the money , or the political will . Without established means to actively and routinely relocate bears from crowded intratstate habitat conflict zones to a new home a few hundred miles away in another state’s wilderness , there is no real future for Grizzly bears in the West. Just more episodes of ” Musical Bears ” and some ugly news stories to look forward to.

    State management of Grizzly bears is delusional. QED. Sorry, trophy hunters , backcountry barbarians, developers, and bear haters. Not sorry.

  8. The state is confident that they have earned the right to manage grizzlies? If the way wolves are managed in this state is any indication of how grizzlies will be managed, we can expect to see a lot of dead bears. The press release also states that they are amending the mortality limits which we know exactly what that means, more grizzlies to be hunted. Especially as the Wildlife Task Force continues to meet and recommend hunting license allotments to ensure that residents get their “fair share” of licenses when grizzlies are once again allowed to be hunted. For those who don’t know, grizzlies are listed as one of the “big 5” species to be trophy hunted in Wyoming similar to the big 5 in Africa.

    The state of Wyoming could be putting their efforts into reducing conflicts between bears and livestock producers and communities. They could be focused on protecting bears’ food sources. They could be focused on educating people on how to coexist with bears and appreciate the economic benefit they bring to the state. All of those things could be done WITHOUT DELISTING. Instead, the state continues to be obsessed with getting bears off the ESA List to begin a hunting season so they can please the very small number of people who want to hunt a bear and lay a bear skin rug on their floor. With legislators who suggest tagging coyote pups in their dens and then offering a bounty to anyone who kills them and allows wolves to be killed year-round without a license, what makes the state think they have any right to manage a species like grizzly bears that are still on the brink of survival?

    We will continue to fight for grizzlies to be protected under the Endangered Species Act as only 1,000 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is no where near enough to consider them recovered. Further, genetic connectivity between populations of grizzly bears throughout the Northern Rockies is also not sufficient. With dozens of grizzlies still dying every year without delisting, the threats that remain are too great to release protections now.

    Executive Director
    Wyoming Wildlife Advocates
    Jackson, WY

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comments and solutions. We respect and applaud your efforts to protect what certainly makes WY a must visit for so many people- seeing animals ALIVE not dead.

  9. I hope the feds hold firm and keep the bears listed. Otherwise the livestock farmers will have a field day murdering them, with total support from the so-called game and fish agency. If all the Wyoming meat on the US market disappeared overnight, nobody would even notice it was gone.

    It amazes me how the population of a state in the 21st Century can be so gullible that it lets itself be ruled by such people, and so few in number. They even allow subsidize the farmers by making drivers responsible for death or damage of stock hit on highways, and they force others to fence livestock OUT rather than vice versa. Grow up, people!