Karl Bodmer's early 1800s portraits of Native Americans include this one featuring Mandan tribal members and a necklace of grizzly bear claws. Tribal members today say the grizzly is sacred and should not be removed from Endangered Species Act protection and hunted. (Karl Bodmer [cropped] 1843)

Wyoming might consider Native American tribes’ request that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem be transplanted to reservations rather than hunted, a top official said last week.

Even though it has adopted framework regulations for grizzly hunting, Wyoming Game and Fish won’t dismiss the transplant idea, Wyoming’s Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik said. His remarks followed a call by a tribal coalition that grizzlies be transplanted instead of hunted if managers seek to reduce their numbers in the ecosystem.

“Instead of trophy hunting the grizzly, Tribal Nations wish to see grizzlies transplanted from the GYE to sovereign tribal lands in the grizzly’s historic range where biologically suitable habitat exists,” coalition co-founder R. Bear Stands Last wrote Game and Fish director Scott Talbott on June 29. “The same quota of grizzlies that would be hunted per season could easily be trapped and relocated, removing any possible rationalization for re-instituting trophy hunts.”

GOAL Tribal Coalition (Guardians of our Ancestors’ Legacy) involves almost 50 tribal nations and considers the grizzly a sacred animal. Despite adoption of “Chapter 67 Grizzly Bear Regulations” on July 8, Wyoming hasn’t decided whether to hunt grizzly bear once the federal government removes Endangered Species Act protection as planned. The Game and Fish commission unanimously adopted the Chapter 67 hunting framework because Fish and Wildlife requires them to have a management plan and rules before it would delist the Yellowstone population. The regulations spell out bedrock population numbers, hunters’ reporting requirements and a prohibition against killing mothers with offspring nearby.

As for transplants, “We haven’t given that a lot of consideration,” Nesvik said last week. “I wouldn’t say it’s something we wouldn’t consider.”

To be clear, the tribal coalition doesn’t want Wyoming to manage the Yellowstone-area grizzly at all. It believes the federal government should keep the estimated 717 Yellowstone-area grizzlies under federal control.

But federal officials plan to delist the bear and let Wyoming, Idaho and Montana manage the species under certain parameters they say will allow grizzlies to persist. Hunting could be allowed.

Which forces Nesvik and other state officials to answer questions they haven’t yet come to grips with. “Our charge is to address the [grizzly bears’] health and long-term viability,” Nesvik said last week. Beyond that, numerous decisions hang in the balance — including whether the Game and Fish Commission would even consider a hunting season.

Wyoming’s positions contradictory?

As Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and the federal government work toward delisting, Wyoming has adopted positions that appear contrary to conservation of Yellowstone-area grizzlies. The state, for example, opposes federal delisting language that supports connectivity between Yellowstone and other ecosystems. Connecting isolated populations is a key conservation concept.

Connectivity with other ecosystems north and west of Yellowstone is “not a requirement,” that ensures the health of the population, Nesvik said. Federal officials have said the genetic health of Yellowstone’s isolated population is sound. Therefore, proposed federal language in delisting strategies that would promote connectivity is out of place, Nesvik said.

That doesn’t mean Wyoming would keep grizzlies from migrating one way or the other, Nesvik said. “From our perspective, connectivity is certainly not a bad thing for the Yellowstone ecosystem,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a desire not to be connected.”

Wyoming officials regularly complain about and act against what they assert is federal “overreach,” and the connectivity issue is only one recent example. Asked whether Wyoming is more interested in state rights and control than it is in preserving threatened wildlife, Nesvik answered with a flat “no.”

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“I think that, based on the existing law, based on the Endangered Species Act, both [states’ rights and conservation] can coexist,” he said. “We strongly believe that Wyoming can maintain its abilities under the law to manage a species that’s delisted without a bunch of prescriptions that are written into a delisting rule.”

So far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is requiring states to agree to population goals and sign on to formulas that dictate how many bears could be lost annually to “discretionary mortality,” including potential hunting. States also have agreed to impose rules prohibiting the killing of grizzly mothers with cubs at their sides, should hunting be allowed. Wyoming’s Chapter 67 framework regulations are designed to meet the federal requirements.

The federal government should delist the grizzly and feel assured Wyoming will conserve them, Nesvik said. Over the last 40 years, “Wyoming has demonstrated that it is definitely committed to grizzly conservation in our state,” he said.

GOAL co-founder R. Bear Stands Last created this icon — in the pattern and color of a radiation warning sign — to signify the potential plight of the Yellowstone grizzly. Removing federal protections would open up habitat to mining, the tribal coalition says. (GOAL/R. Bear Stands Last)

Game and Fish commissioners have reacted when criticized for adopting the Chapter 67 hunting framework regulations even before they’ve decided whether they will consider a hunting season.

“This isn’t about hunting grizzlies,” Game and Fish Commissioner David Rael told one critic at the commission meeting July 8 in Pinedale. “This is about delisting grizzlies.”

Nevertheless, the framework regulations include language about how soon a hunter must report a slain grizzly bear and how long he or she has to produce the hide and skull to a warden for inspection. After adopting such language, Wyoming appears to be on the path to a hunting season, state critics say.

Furthermore, Wyoming’s management plan for grizzlies doesn’t acknowledge the bears’ value to tourism, said Jim Laybourn, a wildlife guide, hunter and grizzly advocate. (He and two groups have sued Wyoming to prevent hunting.) “It makes no acknowledgement of the importance of grizzly bears to the tourism economy,” he told commissioners in Pinedale. That includes famous grizzly bear mother 399, an international roadside attraction in Grand Teton National Park.

“No one’s ever going to bring 399’s hide and skull to town,” Laybourn said. “We’re not going to allow it.” If hunting is allowed “you are declaring war on the international brand of Jackson Hole conservation,” he told the commission.

No national park buffers — yet

In establishing Wyoming’s Chapter 67 framework for grizzly hunting, Game and Fish Commissioners did not consider, and the agency’s staff did not recommend, a hunting buffer zone around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The National Park Service has requested that bears not be hunted on park borders, as has the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “Hunting should be avoided in areas adjacent to our National Parks and within the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway,” chamber officials said in a letter.

Those restrictions didn’t make it into the Chapter 67 framework regulations.

“We don’t believe we need a buffer zone or to extend the boundaries of the national parks to ensure the conservation of grizzly bears,” Nesvik said. “Other species that are not listed go back and forth in the parks. Black bears have no buffer and black bears are doing great in our state.”

While Game and Fish is opposed to predetermined buffer zones, “we are interested in what the public has to say,” Nesvik said, and would consider boundary worries should Wyoming implement a grizzly hunting season.

GOAL’s co-founder Bear Stands Last said Wyoming is exaggerating support for its position. He criticized Game and Fish statements that Wyoming residents strongly support state management of grizzlies. Instead, a poll the conducted for the agency in 2001 found an even split between those favoring delisting and those who believe the federal government should stay in charge of Yellowstone-area grizzly bears. Game and Fish is guilty of perpetuating “blatant falsehoods and misinformation,” GOAL said in a letter criticizing Game and Fish’s framework rules.

In early June, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democratic member of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying delisting plans are premature because states and the U.S. Forest Service haven’t yet adopted regulations to protect the species. “Rushing to finalize the rule without addressing these concerns will likely result in the Service losing yet another lawsuit – an outcome that no one wants,” Grijalva wrote.

He also sided with tribes. “Removing legal protections right now, without adequate safeguards to ensure continued recovery, is a recipe for disaster,” he said in a statement. “Americans everywhere have invested in bringing this iconic species back from the brink of extinction. They deserve certainty that grizzlies will thrive under state management rather than be hunted down to the minimum number of bears allowed by law.”

 

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 bears, as mentioned, cost alot of money to restore only to have such terminology as “no mothers with offspring “nearby”” which leaves alot of room for discussion. Many can be taken with no repercussions. ALL animals are sacred in their own special way and our first priority should be giving them room to live and act as animals do. We should be building ourselves into ecological islands, not forcing animals into nonhabitable islands. We have technology and can move around easier. They have few choices. We really need to come at this from a different perspective Before they have WY being just like every other disproportionate state (which I think we are close to now with all the pollution around our fair state, and other places as well, and those who deny it even exists are in seats of power).
    Please, please allow this plan a chance. More bears can not only be saved but actually live well.

  2. The State of Washington is making request for Grizzly Bears to be re-established in Olympic National Park.

  3. Washington State has made wish to have grizzly bears re-establish to Olympic National Park.

  4. Tribes aren’t talking about “relocating ‘excess’ or ‘naughty’ GYE Grizzly bears to a nearby Native American Reservation,” they are talking about relocating grizzlies (and not so-called “problem” bears) to sovereign tribal lands where biologically suitable habitat exists in the grizzly’s historic range, which extended to the Pacific Coast. Tribes from the Blood in Canada to the Hopi and others in the Southwest support this – they’re not talking about Wind River in Wyoming. If the grizzly is to survive there have to be linkage zones between populations, and clearly from the plans produced neither Wyoming or Montana sees that as a priority. The tribal alternative is the only hope for that. Ample precedent exists of tribes partnering with the US Fish & Wildlife Service to return T&E species. Nesvik can say what he wants, but this is a decision that will be made at the federal level; Nesvik won’t have a say in it as states have no jurisdiction on reservations as tribes’ sovereignty was established before states, per the US Supreme Court.

  5. The notion of relocating ” excess” or” naughty” GYE Grizzly bears to a nearby Native American Reservation is not viable. The bears will just keep moving on , and on , and on.

    However, it is good to hear that the Wyo G & F is at least somewhat open minded to the notion that those ” excess ” bears could be transplanted instead of killed by hunting or assassination in the name of ” management” . Perhaps WyoG&F is coming around to realizing they will have to use ALL the tools in the willife conservation toolbox, not just the rifle. How rad…

    The point being…we allegedly spent $ 40 million across 40 years to recover the GYE grizzly population. But it makes no sense whatsoever to cap the numbers of bears at a minimum of 500 and a maximum of 700 bears— on an ecological island! —- and kill any ” excess” bears. That is Wyoming’s bear management plan in a nutshell, and it is preposterous. Bad science, bad management, terrible sustainability, and total ignorance of bears returning to suitable habitat in other Rocky Mountain regions all the way from New Mexico to the Yukon. Start with the huge Selway-Bitterroot wilderness in central Idaho. It has room for at least 150 grizzlies and no cattle or subdivisions for bears to ” plunder”.

    The Wyoming draft management plan for State control of Grizzlies is D.O.A. Give the Tribes credit for showing Wyoming a path out of .