Future Wyoming grizzly bear hunts — a near certainty if federal authorities approve the state’s petition to again remove the animals’ Endangered Species Act protections — would likely target more than triple the number of bruins than previously proposed hunts, according to a state analysis.

The explosion in anticipated grizzly hunting tags owes to a spike in the bear population — at least on paper.

A handover of jurisdiction from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho is not guaranteed, but population data presented in Wyoming’s petition and publicly available federal reports paint a picture of what a grizzly bear hunt could look like. 

Using the latest population numbers, from 2021, a hypothetical state-managed grizzly hunt could kill up to 10 females and 29 males in Wyoming’s portion of the tightly managed “demographic monitoring area,” according to Dan Thompson, who leads the large carnivore section of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“That’s an example, based on previous estimates,” Thompson said. “Basically what we’re looking at is an increase in what’s available for harvest and what’s available as far as management flexibility with a more accurate estimate of the population.” 

A change in the method of counting grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem underlies that new population estimate and the resulting change in potential hunting opportunity. 

In 2018, during the last era of Wyoming grizzly bear management, the grizzly population was estimated at 714 bears and the state capped its hunt at one female bear and 10 males within the DMA. (Originally Wyoming proposed targeting two female bears, though it was trimmed to one due to an interstate spat about the divvying of grizzly mortality.) 

Today, however, managers estimate a population of 1,069 animals, a count biologists say is more accurate, due to an adjustment to how many female grizzlies with cubs are tallied.  

Historically, sows and cubs counted aerially within 19 miles of each other were only counted once to avoid double-counting bears. An analysis found this buffer too broad. Since 2021, only sows with cubs detected within 10 miles of each other are excluded to avoid duplication.

Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could be subject to hunting if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes action on Wyoming’s petition to delist bears from the Endangered Species Act for the third time. This grizzly would remain protected from hunting where it sits on Yellowstone National Park’s Swan Lake Flats. (National Park Service/Jim Peaco)

The change in how grizzlies are counted, a process known as recalibration, was among the issues U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen cited when he rejected the Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent attempt at grizzly delisting. The worry was that revising the estimate upward without simultaneously adjusting population objectives upward could result in heavy hunting and a smaller number of bears. 

Another change in how officials estimate the Yellowstone region’s grizzly population is on horizon. Federal and state biologists are moving toward using an “integrated population model,” which, Thompson said, is “more accurate, basically.” When applied, that new model produces similar numbers to the just-revised population estimate of more than 1,000 grizzlies in the monitoring area, he said. 


Thirty nine grizzlies — 29 males and 10 females — is not the upper limit of what Wyoming could hunt, were a hunt to occur. An untold number of additional bruins could be targeted outside the 19,278-square-mile DMA.

In 2018, Wyoming sought to target another dozen grizzly bears on the fringes of the ecosystem where there were no federal restrictions. All told, the state’s planned hunt that year could have knocked down its population by 23 bears, but the selected trophy game hunters never got the chance — Christensen declared an injunction stopping the hunt, then later he directed federal managers to relist the species as threatened under the ESA.

Wyoming hasn’t signaled what grizzly hunting might look like outside the monitoring area at the Yellowstone region’s core if the state reassumes control. Last time, the peripheral hunt was pitched as a tool to drive down the population, mimicking the structure of the state’s two-tiered wolf management regime, which keeps wolf numbers outside of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as low as possible.

“To be responsible, we’d still have limits in place,” Thompson said of hunting the outskirts of grizzly range. “But we could potentially use harvests in a heavier fashion outside the DMA.”

If Wyoming’s coming grizzly hunting seasons mirror 2018’s planned-and-foiled hunt, with a roughly 1-to-1 ratio of bears targeted in each of the two zones, about 80 grizzlies could be taken statewide. 

Grizzly range has been stretching outwards at roughly 12,400 square miles per decade since the population lowpoint in the 1970s, though it’s slowed somewhat of late, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader Frank van Manen said. At last estimate, occupied grizzly range encompassed more than 27,200 square miles — 40% of which fell outside of the monitoring area. Population densities are lower on the outskirts, but there’s really no saying how many grizzlies, which tend to be young males, exist in places like the southern Wyoming Range, eastern Owl Creek Mountains and the plains of the Bighorn Basin. 

Mortality math 

“I wish we had the resources to do that,” van Manen said of counting peripheral grizzlies. “But we made a decision in 2012 to restrict [the count] to the demographic monitoring area.”

Grizzlies killed outside the monitoring area aren’t counted toward mortality caps included in tri-state pacts that outline cooperative management of the region’s grizzly bears. And so the operative number van Manen sees when looking at the effects of a hypothetical Wyoming hunt is 39 bears. 

“This would, I think, represent a fairly conservative approach,” he said. “These numbers of added mortality would not have any huge effect on the population, positive or negative.” 

Federally protected grizzly bears have steadily increased their range, in green, over the past four decades. Based on the latest population data and plans, Wyoming could hunt up to 39 grizzlies inside the blue line and an unlimited number of animals outside that area. (Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team)

If delisting proceeds, Montana and Idaho could hunt grizzly bears, too. The overall number of grizzlies that could be hunted in the DMA throughout the whole ecosystem is 69, Thompson said, breaking down to 51 males and 18 females. Wyoming is allocated more than half of that sum because the majority of grizzly range falls in state bounds. 

Hunting down 69 of the 1,069 grizzlies in the Yellowstone region would work toward the three states’ goal of reducing the population to 932 animals — the average from 2002 to 2019. There’d be other thresholds. If the population dipped below 831 bears, hunting within the monitoring area would be “suspended,” according to Wyoming’s petition. If grizzly numbers were to hover between 600 and 831, the states and tribes would retain “full management authority,” though with an absence of hunting. Below 600 grizzlies and all so-called “discretionary mortality” would also cease except to protect human safety. 

These parameters were compelling to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In early February the agency announced it found Wyoming’s petition favorable and that it would examine whether to surrender jurisdiction to the states. The next step in the process is a “comprehensive status review” of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies, which is supposed to be completed within a year of a petition being filed but often takes much longer. 

There’d be more bureaucratic steps prescribed by the Endangered Species Act after that: a proposed delisting rule and final rule.

Round three 

The state of Wyoming would have its own process for setting up a hunt if federal delisting proceeds. 

“It’s not up to me,” Game and Fish’s Thompson said. “It’d be up to the commission whether we move forward with a hunting season. I would envision the same process as before.” 

Ahead of its planned 2018 grizzly hunt, state biologists traveled Wyoming and held a series of meetings to vet the idea. There were geographic splits in reception. Residents of Jackson Hole, home to several celebrity grizzly bears, were leery of hunting, leading to a no-hunting buffer zone that ran up the east side of Grand Teton National Park. The appetite for grizzly hunting elsewhere in Wyoming was greater.  

Grizzly 399 sizes up the Snake River before a crossing in May 2022. The celebrity of bears like Grizzly 399 has exacerbated tensions about the prospect of grizzly hunting. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Grizzly hunting in the Lower 48 ceased in the 1970s, when Ursus arctos horribilis became one of the first species protected by the Endangered Species Act. At the population’s nadir a half-century ago, grizzlies were rarely seen outside of Yellowstone National Park and fell to as few as 136 bears. Numbers grew steadily for decades afterward and have long met initial recovery goals for the ecosystem. 

Still, a debate rages whether it’s appropriate to use hunting to drive down isolated populations of grizzly bears that have persisted, like those in the Yellowstone region. There are only 2,000 to 3,000 Lower 48 grizzlies on the landscape today, down from an estimate of 50,000 bears believed to exist before the western settlement era.

Advocacy groups are still sorting out their positions on the states’ third go at gaining jurisdiction over their grizzlies. That’s the case for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which opposed the first delisting attempt, but didn’t oppose the idea the second time. Craig Benjamin, the group’s conservation director, said it’s “premature” to take a position on the next delisting attempt, though some views of state management are already settled. 

“We’ve made it clear that we oppose hunting of grizzly bears,” Benjamin said. “We don’t see a biological or wildlife management reason to do it, given all of the mortality that already occurs.” 

Of course, it’s up to federal wildlife officials whether Wyoming and its neighboring Northern Rockies states get a chance to manage and hunt their resident grizzly bears. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined an interview for this story. 

Decisions, decisions

Rob Wallace, who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service for the Trump administration’s Interior Department, said that ideally the decision will be driven by the federal agency’s career professionals who know the species best. But, “whether we like it or not,” he said, there’s undeniably a political dimension to the grizzly delisting decision. 

“I’m sure the career people are going to tell this administration, as they told our administration, that the bear has recovered,” said Wallace, a Teton Village resident. “They’re going to also try to understand what the states of Montana and Idaho and Wyoming are going to do if the bear’s delisted. And if they think there’s going to be a shooting arcade on the border of the parks, that’s going to affect their decision.” 

… if they think there’s going to be a shooting arcade on the border of the parks, that’s going to affect their decision.” 

Rob Wallace

Other variables that could stymie delisting and prevent grizzly bear hunting are out of Wyoming’s control. Endangered Species Act case law precedent is such that a “distinct population segment” of a species, like the grizzlies of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, cannot be delisted along state lines, said David Willms, an attorney and former policy advisor to Gov. Matt Mead who teaches an ESA course at the University of Wyoming. In other words, Wyoming’s delisting petition — if it’s successful — would also give Montana and Idaho the opportunity to manage and hunt their grizzlies. And whether delisting is successful also hinges on plans Idaho and Montana put in place. 

“There’s no path to delisting without the Fish and Wildlife Service working with all three states, and with all three states working together,” Willms said. 

Idaho’s grizzly bear petition called for delisting throughout the Lower 48 states, but lacked “substantial, credible information,” and was dismissed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Hunting grizzly bears in Wyoming. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 1844)

Montana’s petition, meanwhile, was found favorably, triggering a separate “comprehensive status review” for its Northern Continental Divide population of grizzlies. But recent laws passed by the Montana Legislature could jeopardize Wyoming’s chances of managing and hunting its grizzly bears. 

In a February 2023 letter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams warned Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Hank Worsech that his legislature flouted the Endangered Species Act by passing a measure that legalized killing grizzlies caught preying on livestock. She also cited several other “concerning” policies, such as allowing wolf snaring and trapping and the use of dogs to pursue black bears in occupied grizzly bear range.

“The current 2023 Montana legislative session presents a good opportunity to address these issues,” Williams wrote. 

The Montana Legislature, which meets every other year, will complete its session in mid-May. 

Willms sees similarities to what unfolded when wolves came off the ESA in the Northern Rockies more than a decade ago. Wyoming, insistent on classifying wolves as unprotected predators in 85% of the state, slowed down the whole show, he said.  

“Depending on what Montana does here,” Willms said, “Montana could be to grizzly bears what Wyoming was to wolves.” 

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. “shooting arcade on the border of the parks” “…explosion in hunting” what a bunch of hypebole. Currently 40-50 bears are removed each by road accidents, problem behaviours, or in self defence. The “real” estimated population in the Greater Yellowstone Area is closer to 1500 bears. An annual take of 39 bears is 2.6% of the population. Far less than the reproductive rate. Also the concept that the bears are only in the two national parks, and that hunters will be lining up on their borders to take wandering bears is delusional. The majority of Yellowstones border is in some of the most remote wilderness in the US. Not prime hunting for anyone. Half or more of the bears don’t live inside the boundries of YNP or Grand Teton which of course do not allow any hunting.

  2. It never ceases to amaze me that protecting our food producers is of least concern. Bears and reintroduced wolves are wonderful inside of Yellowstone and Teton NPs, but when their numbers skyrocket & virtually destroy that food supply, they head for ranches. Those ranches produce human food, actually also a necessity, but the introduced predators get first shot. Yet the victimized ranchers tax dollars are funding the killing machines that destroy their livlihood and decrease meat supply for humans.

    1. They produce so little that the national meat market would not even hiccup if they all disappeared.

    2. The idolization of welfare farms and ranches is silly too me.

      These “victimized” ranches make more than enough in government subsidies and handouts that they’ll be just fine.

      And as Harvey said, wyoming doesn’t produce enough meat to influence a thing.

  3. With respect to Martha Williams comments quoted in this article. Wyoming’s wolf management program has been extremely successful and is the best example in the lower 48 of how to manage wolves according to the publicly reviewed state management plans. We are managing exactly as determined in the existing wolf management plan. Not so in Idaho, Montana and Wisconsin where failure to manage to the specified population goals and designated habitat has created chaos. Ms. Williams clearly does not understand our accomplishments here in Wyoming – its working as intended!!! Stay the course Wyoming.

  4. Consider the number of grizzly bears that Game and Fish has had to trap and relocate or put down – the humanized problem bears and bears predating on livestock outside of their designated habitat. Removing 39 bears approximates the number of removed bears – weren’t two of 399s cubs put down last year because they moved into residential areas?? The rapid expansion of occupied habitat outside of designated recovery habitat can ultimately mean only one thing – removal of excess bears by lethal means – either hunting seasons or removal of problem bears by Game and Fish utilizing lethal means. Either way, some of the excess bears must perish. Its time for grizzly bear birth control – isn’t birth control utilized as a means of controlling wild horse populations on the high desert?? Something must be done – and soon.

    Another important factor is the number of maulings and deaths of humans – particularly those outside of the designated habitat. Game and Fish can actually be sued for damages as a result of human maulings and/or deaths. I did a Google search and found several court cases in Wyoming. Financially, damage awards could cause Game and Fish huge setbacks in other programs. More reasons why grizzly populations must be controlled outside of their designated habitat.

    1. Addendum: Please note I only recommended control of grizzly populations outside of their designated habitat – I purposely DID NOT RECOMMEND CONTROL OF THEIR POPULATION WITHIN THEIR DESIGNATED HABITAT. Lee

  5. To say the computer models the Game & Fish et al use to extrapolate grizzly numbers are suspiciously built to reach a preordained number would be ‘ polite ‘.
    To say they will use any means they can get away with to ‘ just hunt some bears ‘ and kill down to another postulated but artifical number within an arbitraily conjugated and mapped Zoo Zone… that would be ‘ perceptive ‘.

    There are millions of acres of suitable prime grizzly habitat in seven western states that currently have zero bears, but only a few human generations ago had a reproducing bear population. When Game & Fish and the blood sport community agree to a multistate management plan that relocates ‘ surplus ‘ bears to the vast range of their former homeleand, then and only then we’ll talk about killing Grizzlies for sport and spite.

    Grizzly bear management … isn’t. Nobody asked the bears, and they are not at the table. And frankly , the last entity you want in charge of a threatened meagafauna keystone species are the trigger happy moguls of our short minded, narrow minded , close minded state government who appear to have not passed 7th grade biology class, and to whom the term ‘ landscape scale ecology in the era of rampant climate change ‘ are just big words. They just want to kill animals.

    1. Dewy: I agree that the other states aren’t doing their part with respect to reintroduction of grizzly bears – especially California which has millions of acres of suitable habitat in the high Sierras. Wyoming has borne the brunt of the recovery effort to date primarily due to the millions of acres of wilderness and national parks in NW Wyoming. However, the bureaucratic paperwork to reintroduce grizzly bears to the other states would take 5 to 15 years. We have the excess bears they would need to jump start their program but how can it be done considering all the complications involved??

    2. For once Dewey I agree with you. This grizzly bear delisting thing is all about money. Big money for a tag and big money for the outfitter who takes the hunt. So few elk in NW Wyoming these days, they are all looking for the money to replace all the elk hunts we used to have. Kill, kill, kill–that’s Wyoming for you.

  6. The last time I heard an in-depth discussion was a couple years ago on the Meateater podcast and the biologist kept quoting, “absolute minimum” number of bears that have been counted, with the knowledge that there are probably quite a few more than that number. I didn’t hear that discussion of numbers here, but I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter. The people that don’t want bears hunted (because they live peacefully forever and ever if they are not killed by hunters) don’t care if there are 1,000 or a 1,000,000, it’s an emotional problem for them.

  7. as long as the tags are first for wyoming residents,don’t see a big problem
    with a brown bear hunt.

    1. Bears and wolves aren’t even close to disappearing. Alaska and Canada are full of them.
      Talk about the money influencing biology, The way the endangered species system works is – biology professors look around for rare animals, then they study them and become the “authority” on that species. Then they politic and sway public opinion enough to get that species listed as endangered. Then Uncle Sam grants the “expert” gobs of money.
      I once sat on a recovery board for the endangered Blowout Penstamen. It is a pioneer pioneer plant that can grow in sand dunes, but disappears when the dune gets stabilized. It was disappearing in Nebraska because good management by landowners in the sandhills had returned the area to grass. I suggested to the board that since the sandhills were healing that saving the plant in Nebraska was a loosing proposition. But there were lots of places that had sand dunes and the Penstamen could help rehabilatate these sad places. And if spread around the plant would likely never disappear. No no I was told by the “experts” Blowout Penstanem should remain endemic to Nebraska. In other words the recovery experts didn’t really care about the plant, THEY JUST WANTED TO KEEP THE GOVERNMENT MONEY ROLLING IN.
      In the case of bears and wolves we see the opposite. Instead of being content that there are plenty of both in Alaska these “experts” have convinced environmentalist wannabees mostly from New York and California that we need them in Wyoming. And, the professor experts are rolling in really big grant dollars.

      Another travesty is that the government pays for the lawsuits by environmental groups that sue to “protect endangered species” It would be interesting to know the membership of some of the groups that continually sue to “protect the species” Maybe something like 15 Californians 15 New Yorkers and 30 Lawyers