Gov. Mark Gordon asked the federal government Monday to remove its protection of Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears, an act that could see hunting of grizzlies in Wyoming outside national parks.
The petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to declare Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies as distinct from three other existing populations in the country and neither threatened nor endangered. The petition asks the federal wildlife agency to remove the Yellowstone Ecosystem population from the list of threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act.
The 27-page petition asserts that grizzlies in the ecosystem have recovered from their perilously low numbers and that Wyoming has resolved legal questions that have prevented delisting. On the legal front, the state has committed to ensuring genetic viability of the isolated population by transplanting outside bears into the Yellowstone area.
Wyoming also has committed to recalibrate minimum population goals under a new counting method that boosted ecosystem population estimates from slightly more than 700 bears to more than 1,000.
“There is no biological or legal reason to keep [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem] grizzly listed,” a statement issued by the governor’s office reads. “The states have applied the best-available population models, and the most current data shows grizzly bear populations have grown beyond the edges of the bear’s biological and socially suitable range.”
Who said what
“This is an extraordinary and monumental success story for species recovery and should be celebrated,” Gordon said in a statement. “The GYE grizzly bear is ready to join the ranks of the bald eagle, American alligator, peregrine falcon and brown pelican as receiving proper recognition as a thriving, recovered and stable species.”
Not so fast, said Andrea Zaccardi, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We do not believe grizzly bears are fully recovered,” she said. “They remain in only four isolated populations occupying just 6% of their historic range.
“Wyoming is likely to move forward with aggressive trophy hunts,” if grizzlies are delisted, she said. “There’s no science that supports the need for trophy hunting of grizzly bears,” she continued, and states have not shown they can manage predators based on science, rather than politics.
The state’s petition states that “naysayers could not be more wrong.” Wyoming has contributed to grizzly recovery as bear numbers increased from 136 in 1975 to more than 1,000 today, the petition states.
“The question of hunting is a separate one from this particular petition,” Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said Tuesday. “The last time Game and Fish contemplated grizzly hunting it was based on science and our track record with gray wolves and mountain lions, which we managed very successfully with hunting.
“This petition reflects some commitments, bold commitments the state is making in response to the recent circuit court decision,” he said. “I don’t think there are any stones unturned.”
Why it matters
Grizzly bears are enormous draws to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks where visitors yearn to see them amble, root around or chase prey. Grizzly advocates say celebrity bears, such as world-famous 399 and her family of four in Grand Teton, are ambassadors that teach people about the environment, conservation and more.
Some fear hunting could upset that dynamic, possibly even resulting in the killing of famous bears. The last hunting season proposed by Wyoming, which a court blocked, included a no-hunt buffer around Grand Teton.
Grizzlies also are blamed for conflicts with ranchers and stock growers, preying on numerous, sometimes dozens, of their cattle or sheep annually. Wyoming Game and Fish compensates for losses to grizzlies, sometimes paying the owner up to three times the value of a confirmed, grizzly-killed animal.
The Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly population is isolated from other populations. That makes natural genetic interchange a challenge that critics say could be insurmountable with hunting pressure.
After placing the species on the list of wildlife threatened with extinction in all or part of its range, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Game and Fish Department have seen numbers increase steadily. Wyoming has invested more than $52 million in grizzly management, Gordon said.
A new agreement with Idaho and Montana sets out how the three states will manage the ecosystem population in their jurisdictions. That agreement includes how “discretionary mortalities” like hunting would be distributed among the three states.
The government sought to remove federal protection of Yellowstone grizzlies but court challenges stymied that effort, most recently in 2017. In that decision, a federal court said the questions about genetic diversity and minimum population recalibration were unanswered.
Wyoming believes it has now resolved those issues. Nesvik said he hopes to receive a response from federal wildlife officials within 90 days and a final decision within a year of that.