Jm Laybourn, a wildlife tour guide, advocates for grizzlies outside the meeting of an interagency committee that considers the fate of the bear at Teton Village in November 2015. Guides like him fear a hunting season would disrupt viewing opportunities, but ranchers who lose cattle to grizzlies say their losses are becoming unacceptable. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

As the federal government begins to remove some protections safeguarding Yellowstone-area grizzly bears, widespread and emotional reaction follows, particularly regarding a potential hunting season.

Dozens of Wyoming residents spoke at forums in Jackson and Cody as the public began to learn about agreements being forged to manage grizzlies after Endangered Species Act protection is lifted. Others conveyed their views in interviews or emails. From Gov. Matt Mead to national park tour guides, from ranchers to photographers, residents hold diverse opinions about the threatened grizzly bear and the law that protects it.

The views of a Jackson Hole cowboy and a wildlife tour operator are an example of conflicting positions. While the hunting of grizzly might generate money, “their true value is as a roadside bear — for viewing,” national park guide Jim Laybourn told an interagency grizzly bear committee last November. “Virtually every single person I have guided here has asked me to see a bear.”

But Terry Schramm, who spent years beating the willows on Togwotee Pass looking for grizzly-killed cattle, has a contrasting perspective.

“A good bear is one that’s seldom seen or never seen,” the Walton Ranch hand said. “People who are trying to save these bears are maybe leading to their demise.”

Gov. Matt Mead sought to frame debate about the Endangered Species Act when he hosted a forum in Cody to kick off his initiative as chairman of the Western Governors’ Association. The group’s Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative seeks to “explore ways to improve the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act,” among other things. The ESA has successfully recovered only 1 percent of protected species, Mead said. “We need better than a 1 percent success rate.”

Instead of the law promoting conservation, people view the conservation measure as a threat. “Now, too often, the ESA is viewed in negative terms — it’s going to shut you down,” Mead said.

The delisting process for recovered species often gets hung up in court. The ESA “generates endless lawsuits,” Mead said. “More than any other species, lawyers have recovered.”

One lawyer who has sued the federal government to enforce environmental laws disagrees with Mead’s view. The Endangered Species Act has resulted in the “amazing accomplishment of preventing extinctions of hundreds of species since it was enacted,” said Tim Preso, managing attorney for Earthjustice.

“It’s been about putting fingers in the dike when the leaks in the dike are expanding exponentially year after year. The time it takes to turn [a species] around may be longer than any of us might like, but that’s the reality of a species facing imminent [extinction].”

Suits have stopped destructive practices, such as the pollution of Yellowstone by snowmobiles and clear-cutting on the park’s west border — a boundary logging made visible from space. “A lot of things that the public now enjoys were achieved only because citizens stood up to take the federal government to court to ensure environmental laws were enforced,” Preso said.

“Every trend in the world is against wildlife recovery,” Preso said. “The only trend that’s in favor is there’s a growing human consciousness about wildlife and biodiversity.”

For some species, habitat has been so degraded by human activity, the wildlife will need constant support, said Susan Clark adjunct professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“It’s going to be difficult getting the numbers back up again,” she said of species that reach the point of listing. “That doesn’t mean we need to throw the goal or the policies of the ESA out the window.”

Counting the number of species taken off the endangered species list is not the best measure of conservation, she said. “I would argue [Mead’s] making the wrong conclusion.”

Stockmen say enough is enough

For rancher and Wyoming Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), continuing to protect the grizzly years after it surpassed the federal recovery criteria of 500 bears doesn’t make sense. Ranchers who graze on the grizzly-thick U.S. Forest Service allotments on the upper Green River have seen a loss of 9 percent of calves, he said. “Two percent is tough enough, 9 percent is off the wall.”

He saw 80 conflicts with grizzlies in 2015, “the worst year we’ve ever had. There could be 60 grizzlies in the upper Green. Livestock do not want to be there. 

“This seems like a disaster, and it’s beginning to be that,” Sommers said. “It’s clear that it has been a success story for bears and wolves.”

It’s also a success for Wyoming, because the state compensates livestock owners for depredations by trophy game like grizzlies. Ranchers persist, Sommers said,  “at the expense of the state of Wyoming, not the federal government.”

Hoback resident Cathy Loewer agreed with Sommers that delisting is overdue. “Ranchers are losing livestock, hunting tags are diminishing,” she said. “How many bears can this Yellowstone ecosystem contain?” Regarding delisting she said, “If the time is not now, then when?”

That’s at odds with the tribal perspective from which the grizzly is a sacred animal. With grizzly bears, tribes have “a relationship that has existed since time immemorial,” said Reuben Fasthorse of the Oglala Nation. Nearly 50 tribes oppose hunting.

Flag of the Oglala Nation. Almost 50 tribes oppose the hunting of grizzly bears. (Wikipedia)

“When your government offered our ancestors $6 million for the Black Hills, Chief Red Cloud told them that this word of $6 million was but a little spit in his mouth,” Fasthorse told federal officials at Teton Village last November. (Native Sun News printed a transcript.) “You tell us there are 700 grizzly bears or more in Greater Yellowstone, but that is just a little spit in our mouths. Before your people came and killed them, there were some 100,000 grizzly bears on our lands.”

The federal government is supposed to consult with tribes regarding the fate of the grizzly, a notion reinforced by President Obama’s executive order creating the White House Council on Native American Affairs. “I received no invitation,” to consult, Fasthorse said. “Fish and Wildlife Service remains in contravention of President Obama’s order.”

Grizzly recovery has generated a $10 million, 155-job wildlife viewing business in Grand Teton National Park, tour guide Laybourn said. Yet the bears that visitors ogle over one hour may be outside Grand Teton in a hunting zone the next. “[Grizzlies] leave the safety of Grand Teton National Park to forage, but also to den on the national forest,” he said.

For Lloyd Dorsey, conservation worker, the economics are simple. “Bears are worth far more alive than dead.”

Wyoming Game and Fish already cost wildlife tour operators money, said Tenley Thompson, another wildlife tour guide, biologist and photographer. She counted on seeing wolves in the park until some of them, which had a home territory larger than the reserve, left Grand Teton and were killed by hunters. “The Wyoming Game and Fish perspective on wolf hunting cost me a quarter million dollars because of the lack of a buffer zone,” she said. “We’d probably lose about a half a million if bear hunting is permitted.”

Some grizzly backers simply don’t want hunting. “We know it’s going to bring shame to Wyoming,” said Deb Patla, field coordinator for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative.

“Delisting is the epitome of lack of compassion,” said photographer and gallery owner Tom Mangelsen.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping an animal under the protection of federal laws, said poet and astrologer Lyn Dalebout. “That does not constitute failure”

Social media now plays a role in public reaction to grizzly bear management, including last year’s decision to kill a man-eating bear in Yellowstone. Before that event, advocates created a Facebook page for a different bear — grizzly 760 — after the Grand Teton National Park bruin frequented developed areas outside the park, was trapped, moved, and ultimately killed. The public group has 994 Facebook members. (760: his life, his death)

“These bears are ambassadors,” said Cindy Campbell, grizzly bear advocate and social media booster. “The world is now watching as never before.” The killing of Grand Teton National Park grizzly bear 760 prompted creation of a Facebook page that has become a rallying site for grizzly bear supporters.

Such circumspection in the age of social media  has bothered Yellowstone officials. Emails and comments overwhelmed Yellowstone officials after park management killed a man-eating grizzly. Gunther warned other wildlife managers of the new order.

“People were purposefully putting out false information to discredit us,” he said. Resulting comments to Yellowstone, “almost all of it — 99 percent — was negative. A lot of it I would classify as hate mail,” bordering on threats. “People have learned how to use social media as a weapon.”

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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  1. The fundamental question at the moment is how deep the Moms and Kids of Teton, Park and Sublette Counties need to be in grizzly bears, wolves, and mtn. lions for the sake of roadside photographers and tour bus operator’s Jurassic park drive-by industry plan.

    Paul Cook

  2. It’s time to start moving grizzly bear to place in other states. Washington state Olympic national Park is a very good place. Grand Canyon had Grizzly bears and there are some very remote places north side of the park. California should be happy to bring its state animal back home. Remember the grizzly bear was from Alaska to Mexico. Look what happen when European Settlers came here!!!!

  3. If you do the math, it’s pretty hard to make the argument with a straight face that grizzlies and wolves combined could have much of an impact on prey populations. We have approximately 300 wolves in all of Wyoming, including both parks and the Wind River reservation. The official grizzly population is 717 bears in the entire Yellowstone Ecosystem. The elk population in Wyoming is just under 130,000, which is over the objective of 100,000.
    If you’e going to argue for delisting and subsequent trophy hunting of grizzlies, claiming they are devastating prey populations simply won’t fly.

  4. I think we can all agree that Thuermers and Drakes style of journalism is all about creating polarizing divides for cash. An evolving Wyoming plan that is still in limbo, but somehow ‘friends’ of Wyofile already know that its got to be wrong. Wyoming’s future generations deserve better than just the polarized politics of Thuermers and Drakes generation. We are all apart of the ecology in Wyoming.

    1. absolutely correct Roger but there is a hidden agenda out there and its about getting rid of anything that protects the environment and its inhabitants. This agenda is designed by big business so they can come in and rape and pillage the land for profit just like the amazon and dozens of other places in the world. we constantly have to be on guard if we want to have any kind of a wilderness and park life for our children’s children to enjoy and beyond them.

      Burnaby, British Columbia

      1. You just do not seem to get the whole picture, Ernie. Ranchers are the ones suffering financial losses due to wolf and bear predation. If the ranchers go bankrupt and leave, the developers move in, and the habitat is gone. Total protection of the bears could well result in the exact concerns you fear.

    1. My perspective on grizzlies changed forever in 1999 when I spotted a large sow with 2 cubs in tow near Lake Manga pass in southern Colorado. Grizzlies were supposed to be extinct in Colorado. Having hunted grizzly in Alaska as well as black bears I was 100% certain of the species.
      Delisting is certainly a touchy subject. But for whatever reason it comes please don’t let it come due to grazing rights. They are archaic, outdated, and unnecessary today. It’s a free ride on our lands, and it still does not make cattle ranching profitable without subsidy.
      And don’t give me the loss of game excuse. Grizzlies are poor predators of large game.
      I give the grizzly every chance.

      1. My understanding is that grizzlies are not efficient predators of _mature_ large game, but do take a larger toll on immature animals during the birthing season.

        With that caveat, I am in substantial agreement with you

        David Neil