In late June, Wyoming governor Matt Mead approved the rules for the state’s first grizzly bear hunt since the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) delisted grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) in 2017. Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) will proceed with a hunt planned for September 15 to November 15, as long as ongoing lawsuits against the delisting don’t stop hunting before it starts.
Hunting Report readers will recall that we predicted a long legal battle over the return of Yellowstone grizzly bears to state management (see ‘Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Delisted, Battle Begins’). Two ongoing lawsuits seek to overturn the delisting. The most advanced of these was brought by the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Fund for Animals and others. As of early July, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen dismissed a motion by FWS to suspend the suit indefinitely, and has also indicated a wish to avoid any temporary, last-minute injunctions to halt hunting. The suit will likely be decided before September.
Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana are part of a tri-state ‘memorandum of agreement’ to manage grizzly populations in the GYE. Wildlife officials in the states have long argued for state management, and hope to go forward with management plans that allow for hunting. That said, Montana opted not proceed with a hunt this season, citing court battles. Idaho concluded a residents-only drawing for a single tag on July 15, with the small quota reflecting the small proportion of grizzly prime habitat in the state. Wyoming will be the primary hunt opportunity, with a quota of up to 22 bears for the 2018 season.
We heard from WGFD Communications Director Renny MacKay with details on the hunt. He says that hunting will take place in two distinct areas with different regulations. “One of the areas the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA), which has been identified as suitable habitat according to biological factors. This includes hunt areas 1-6. The other is hunt area 7, where the bears have spread outside of the DMA. Conflicts with livestock, etc. are more common in this area. Area 7 has twelve licenses, whereas the DMA has an upper limit of 10 bears.”
Draw results will be announced in late July, with a numbered list assigned for the DMA. Only one hunter at a time will hunt within the DMA during 10-day periods, and the hunt will end if a female bear is taken. Each area 1-6 has an assigned limit of bears, so hunters lower on the list may be limited in their movements. All hunters will be required to attend a training session on grizzly bear management and ecology, including identification of sex.
About 7,000 individuals applied for tags in a random draw with no preference points. Per state law, 25% of licenses will go to non-residents. If successful, residents will pay a $60 fee, and non-residents will pay $6,000. The final regulations for the hunt may be viewed at wgfd.wyo.gov/regulations.
Not surprisingly, the delisting and planned hunt has become a major focus of controversy, with various animal rights organizations drumming up publicity through lawsuits and the media. The antis have consistently tried to deny the scientific basis for managed hunting.
Says MacKay, “People ask me why we are doing the hunt. Hunting has been contemplated as a management tool throughout the 43-year period of the listing. The grizzly population has exceeded all goals for recovery for 14 years now, and the science shows that we can have hunting and still maintain a recovered population.”
MacKay says that the public in Wyoming has been overwhelmingly supportive. “We offered a lot of ways for the public to comment, and talked about management and conflict resolution in public meetings all across the state.”
Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association Vice President Sy Gilliland has taken a lead in speaking to the media and others about the hunt, saying that he knew in advance that there would be a lot of blowback.
“We had a meeting at SCI, and decided that someone had to stand up in front of it, and I kind of volunteered. When you look at the information on the recovery, and how the bears were set to be delisted ten or twelve years ago, you see that the objections to hunting are just politics. The bears are overflowing out of available habitat, and you’ve got people running into bears in hay fields around Dubois. The WGFD has already culled some bears in these areas to deal with depredation of livestock and other conflicts.
“It should be known that while the feds listed the bear, the states have borne the cost of management, which represents over $44 million in Wyoming alone. The hunt itself will never pay for management, so it will be a money-losing deal. The costs for management and protection will continue to be borne by sportsmen through fees and through the Pittman-Robinson Act.”
In the lawsuits, antis have pointed to recent mortality from human-wildlife conflict and lethal control (58 bears in 2016) as a reason to continue federal protection of the grizzly. Wyoming’s management plan has points out, however, that high mortality and increased conflicts outside of the DMA is part and parcel of the area being unsuitable habitat for a sustained population. The bears have spread into areas well beyond the area designated for recovery under the ESA. As the management plan states, “Public hunting seasons may also be used to limit grizzly bear occupancy outside the DMA, but will be regulated to assure overall population and distribution goals continue to be met within the DMA.”
Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho will continue to carefully monitor bear populations, and all states have agreed to adjust hunt quotas to ensure that mortality from the hunt and other causes does not exceed the parameters laid out in FWS’ delisting rule. While hunters and officials in Wyoming have kept their optimism in check, we certainly hope that the delisting will prevail in court and that the hunt will proceed. Stay tuned.