Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have forged a pact aimed at moving Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears off the federal threatened species list and allowing hunting — by addressing flaws a court found in an earlier delisting effort.

The 13-page memorandum of agreement among the states addresses two problems the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found in 2020 when it overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2017 removal of federal protections for Greater Yellowstone grizzlies.

The states pledge to manage for a new ecosystem grizzly population goal of 932 bears if federal Endangered Species Act protections are lifted. That upward recalibration responds to a new, more accurate method of estimating bear numbers that finds 1,069 grizzlies — an “on paper” accounting increase over estimates from an earlier, conservative census method.

The tri-state agreement also would ensure genetic diversity of the isolated Yellowstone grizzly community by moving two bears from outside the ecosystem into the area by 2025 if no natural migration occurs by then.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved the pact Tuesday.

“The recent population estimate of more than 1,000 bears is based on a new counting methodology and the public should be aware that the grizzly bear population did not explode overnight.”

Andrea Zaccardi

Wyoming will use its new agreement to bolster a petition to the federal wildlife agency that would again seek to delist the Yellowstone grizzly and open the door to hunting. The agreement lays out how the three states would distribute potential “discretionary mortalities,” when bears exceed the population goal, including the shooting of grizzlies for sport.

An appeals court in 2020 overturned a 2017 federal decision to delist Yellowstone grizzlies citing two principal reasons. State wildlife managers that were largely in charge of grizzlies at that time had not resolved how they would use more accurate counting methods. At issue was whether states would recalibrate population goals in tandem with new population estimates.

In addition to the recalibration issue, states had not adequately settled worries about the isolated population’s long-term genetic diversity and viability.

“Wyoming intends to directly address those issues,” Rick King, chief of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife division, told a teleconference meeting of the agency’s governing commission Tuesday. The updated 2021 tri-state agreement would do that, he said.

Conservation or outrageous request?

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, who said last fall he would petition the USFWS to again declare the Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly recovered, lauded the agreement.

“This [Game and Fish memorandum] approval reaffirms Wyoming’s vow and commitment to long-term grizzly bear conservation and underscores the fact that wildlife management is best placed in the hands of states, not the federal government,” he said in a statement Tuesday. Neither Montana nor Idaho had approved their memoranda by then, his statement read, although the states forged the pact together.

Gordon’s delisting petition would seek to again reclassify the Yellowstone Ecosystem population as a segment “distinct” from grizzlies in the other five U.S. grizzly bear recovery zones. In the Yellowstone Ecosystem population, extinction is no longer a threat, the petition will assert.

The six U.S. grizzly bear recovery zones and occupied habitat. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

An attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that supports grizzly protection, was skeptical about the revised counting method and delisting proposal. “The recent population estimate of more than 1,000 bears is based on a new counting methodology and the public should be aware that the grizzly bear population did not explode overnight,” Andrea Zaccardi said in an email. She urged federal officials to reject Wyoming’s pending “outrageous request.”

Delisting “aims to turn Wyoming’s imperiled grizzly bears into trophy hunting targets,” she said.

The new agreement would increase the population goal for the demographic monitoring area — a 19,270 square-mile zone centered on Yellowstone National Park — where grizzlies count toward Endangered Species Act compliance. Grizzlies outside the DMA would not be subject to the agreement, leaving their fates up to the states upon delisting.

If federal Endangered Species Act protections are removed, the states would strive to maintain 932 grizzlies in the DMA, the 13-page memorandum of understanding states. That new goal would be an increase of 38% from today’s target of 674 set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The new goal intends to resolve the recalibration issue singled out by the appeals court in 2020. The 38% boost, however, appears to fall shy of the “on-paper” increase in the ecosystem population between 2020 and today, according to calculations made by WyoFile.

The new counting method engineered by federal scientists put the population at about 1,069 bears, a scientist told officials earlier this month. That’s up from 727 estimated in a 2020 report, an increase of 47%.

The new tri-state memorandum also would set a minimum population of 831, up from 600, an increase of about 28%. Below that minimum, so-called “discretionary mortality” — conflict-bear removal, hunting and other causes of death that wildlife agencies control — would largely cease.

The states also commit to genetic diversity. “By 2025, the [states] will translocate at least two grizzly bears from outside the [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem] into the GYE, unless migration from outside the GYE is detected in the interim,” the agreement states.

Sliding scale

The amount of “discretionary mortality” would increase with a larger population and shrink with a smaller one, according to the memorandum. If there were more than 1,033 grizzlies, for example, the total mortality rate for independent males would be 22%.

With fewer than 932 grizzlies, the total mortality rate for independent males would fall to below 15%. There would be no hunting if the overall population in the DMA declined below 831.

A grizzly bear on a carcass in the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park in March 2016. (Jim Peaco/NPS)

Similar sliding scales would apply to independent female grizzlies and dependent young. The memorandum assigns 58% of allowable discretionary mortalities inside the demographic monitoring area to Wyoming, 34% to Montana and 8% to Idaho.

The agreement assigns no discretionary mortalities to either Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks, places where grizzly conflicts have occurred. Critics have highlighted that omission in a similar, now defunct, 2017 tri-state MOA as a flaw.

Game and Fish characterized the new agreement as one that “recognizes the expanding number of grizzly bears that have grown beyond the edges of the bear’s biological and socially suitable range.” The population has grown “far beyond all scientific requirements for a recovered, viable population,” the agency said in a news release.

Federal protection of Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly bears has vexed Wyoming for years. Federal scientists estimated the population to be 727 bears — using the older counting method — in a 2020 status report. That exceeds the ESA minimum population of 500, the buffer management minimum of 600 and the population goal of 674 – all figures derived from the older counting method.

After the federal government removed its protection of Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies in 2017, Wyoming approved a hunt that could have seen more than 20 bears killed. Hunting is generally not allowed in national parks and no plan envisioned bears being killed in Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks.

A lawsuit stopped the hunt, overturned the federal delisting for Yellowstone bears and led to today’s positions. The Fish and Wildlife Service has no delisting plans, it said earlier this year after reviewing the grizzly’s status outside Alaska.

“We recommended no change to the threatened status of the grizzly bear in the lower-48 States,” the agency said in its 2020 annual report.

The new counting method changes the way female grizzlies with cubs are tallied by altering what’s known as a distance criterion. The old, conservative method did not tally more than one female with offspring in an area 30 kilometers in radius.

Scientists are now confident they don’t need that precautionary 30-kilometer “distance criterion” and can reduce it to 16.

The increased population estimate is due to that change in methodology. There are, essentially, just as many bears in the ecosystem today as there were under the earlier population-estimating formula.

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. that is because you absolutely do not understand the north American Model of wildlife conservation. if it wasn’t for trophyHunting most animals would be extinct from market hunting. so if you like to see a-lot of wild animals around you should thank a trophy Hunter….your welcome

  2. A struggling wildlife, just because of a reclassification, shouldn’t be hunted down for sport.

  3. Keep them protected. We need to use better more creative ways to manage them, hopefully in a non-lethal fashion.

  4. I thought the reason that the grizzly bears were re-listed in 2020 was that the attempt to call the Yellowstone bears a distinct segment of bears was not accepted. In other words, all of the distinct population segments needed to be recovered, rather than just one segment, because thats what the ESA says. It seems like Wyoming is again trying to say the same thing as last time. Hopefully with the same result.

    The statement that “wildlife management is best placed in the hands of states, not the federal government” is clearly laughable. Without the ESA there wouldnt be any bears to manage.

  5. Shame on these states wanting to kill these magnificent animals! Are the governors really that oblivious to how much money people bring to these states to see the Grizzly bears and wolves ALIVE! Keep the Grizzly protection in place! Re list wolves! Stop the slaughter!

  6. Wildlife is best managed by states fish and game, not journalists, attorneys or photographers. Have an archery-only hunt for those with big Elmer in their Fudd. Tee Hee.

    1. Your premise is demonstrably wrong. State management of grizzlies is what led to the bears being given ESA protections in the first place. As the State of Wyoming tends to fail in its most basic responsibilities, as recent legislative sessions have shown, I wouldn’t put the state in charge of a high school car wash.

  7. There are many passionate opinions and responses to the information that is proposed. This USFW information has been public for many years. Unfortunately, there is considerable dispute over “facts” and “policies” that pertain to Grizzly Bear and Wolf management. It has now, as everything else has become politicized to a point where communication is reduced to who screams the loudest. One has to go back to the common statement these days of “follow the science”. It is difficult to actually do with our country.

    One position that I would like to throw out is this. Until 1975, the State of Montana had a Grizzly Bear season for the sportsman. It was a “draw for a tag affair”, and if you were successfully drawn, you had a tag issued to you for a Grizzly Bear. You might get to possibly hunt them. The tags were numbered from one to fifty. Only those hunters would be able to possibly harvest a Grizzly Bear that season.

    Here is the best part. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, would have a “problem” bear in a certain area of the State. The tag holder of Number 1, would receive a call from a game warden, and then would have 24 hours to show up where the problem bear was. Then, they would go out and try to remove the problem bear by having the hunter harvest it. This did not mean that all “problem” bears were harvested. Instead, normal relocation efforts were used, and if they were unsuccessful, then the removal was accomplished by the hunter. If this did not happen, it would have been done by a Game Warden, or a government trapper. Either way, that particular bear was going to be removed from the population. It was far less expensive for the taxpayer while giving a hunter a chance to actually harvest a problem bear. Each year, in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, there are bears who are removed from the ecosystem as they become a danger to people, or are injured, etc. The figures that I had for several years in Montana, were anywhere from 10-20 bears. Others were mortalities were from automobiles, hunting misidentification, and natural deaths from predation and other issues. All of these were considered in the management figures of the population.

    This approach could possibly solve the problem of bear harvest, without any general Bear Season which could target non “issue” bears.

    1. Dan:

      Great idea or not, it is a good compromise if we need to remove a problem bear. The other is to let hunters shoot birth control into bears to manage the population. But we all know that hunters won’t accept that. They want a trophy.

      I do get the impression that a certain sector of bear lovers will never accept grizzly bear hunting. We could have them roaming school yards and backyards and front yards, and on every hiking trail in the GYE. No hunting will always be the mantra of some.

  8. Nobody, nowhere knows with certainty how many Grizz are out there. Not even the bears themselves, who have no say in the matter.

    Everyone, everywhere – but especially the intervening politicians ; the agency heirarchies taking the ‘ company line ‘ forcing the underling bureaucrats to comply in order to protect their paychecks ; the private sector stakeholders fortifying their own territorial imperatives ; certain scientists willing to bend the laws of Nature in appeasement – they all know how to cook the books and use numbers to build to the desired result … on paper.

    Algorithms use assumptions in the model formulas ; resulting policy is based on presumptions that are more political , less pragmatic . The whole maddening matrix of Grizzly Bear ‘ management’ runs on the Uncertainty Principle .Trying to understand everything about a thing, know where that thing is and where its going at any given moment, all while ‘ managing’ that thing results in gross distortions that render the processes moot.

    Or put more succinctly, the wildlife wranglers of the three states of Wyoming Montana and Idaho enabled by the federal wildlife service are always attempting to force the Grizzly Bear to conform to human nature and human dictums – a Man Plan – when instead it is humans that should be modifying their own behavior to do what is best for the bears. A Bear Plan. IF the true goal is to recover and sustain the Grizzly Bear in an apolitical continuum , allowing bears to repopulate the empty habitats they were eradicated from . Looking at all the available grizzly habitat that is currently devoid of bears, and projecting what it will look like if this Memo of Understanding is actually applied ( with all due consideration to Climate Change and ecology at landscape scale) , it’s difficult to see a robust dispersed growing population of Grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies a century from now, living sustainably. And still no bears in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, or even the Sierras. Southwest Canada was , is , and will remain a Black Hole for grizzlies . Other species take note. As it appears now, insistence on State management of grizzly populations is more of a death sentence than the chance to be paroled back into the Promised Land that grizzlies once roamed freely. We are partitioning the Grizzly . It’s almost Apartheid.

    I do wonder if the States and the Feds really do want to see the Grizzly restored. Individually , or collectively . They say they do, but their actions do not.

  9. I do not support trophy hunting. It is sick to want to kill any animal for sport. Killing to eat is one thing. Killing to save your own life, or the life of another, or your pet, again, acceptable. But there is a sickness present when you kill for the sake of it.

  10. WOW!!! Committing to maintaining 932 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone DMA is a major concession and sets the proposed population way above the original recovery plans. Guarantees minimal removal by hunting and not a feared slaughter of the great bears. A very reasonable proposal by the states – can’t be more accommodating and open to a negotiated solution than this.