The federal government’s imminent release of plans to let states manage Yellowstone-area grizzly bears — including by hunting — rekindles debate about whether gunning down grizzlies will undo years of conservation work.
Federal officials are on the cusp of releasing and seeking public comment on draft rules and regulations that would remove Endangered Species Act protection from more than 717 Yellowstone–area grizzly bears. As officials propose the dramatic change, conservationists wonder whether hunters’ bullets might upend 40 years of advances.
For example, grizzly bears have become celebrated roadside tourist attractions in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Yet roadside grizzlies live a 10- or 15-minute amble from boundaries beyond which they could be killed if hunting is allowed.
Grizzlies have also moved closer to reconnecting with neighboring populations in the past four decades, a reconnection that supports a central principle of conservation — genetic mixing. But bears migrating between isolated ecosystems would be vulnerable to hunters.
Grizzlies, which dwindled to perhaps a few hundred in the 1970s, also now exploit old habitats such as high-altitude talus slopes where they gobble down army cutworm moths. Congregations of moth-eating grizzlies, however, raise the specter of a talus hunt that would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
“How are they going to deal with moth sites?” asked Dave Mattson, a 35-year grizzly researcher and critic of federal grizzly policies. “If I were going to shoot a bear, that’s where I’d go.”
State and federal officials are seeking to reassure people that removing Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of threatened species won’t lead to a wholesale slaughter. Any hunting, should states surrounding Yellowstone allow it, would be closely managed and conservative, they say. National Park officials would have input before states set hunting seasons and areas. Game officials would likely address high density feeding sites like moth fields, and travel corridors would be similarly respected, they promise.
Such assurances don’t go far in a conservation community that watched Wyoming manage wolves — the last protected species the government turned over to state management. In that instance, Wyoming set state population figures close to the minimum number that would keep them off the endangered species list.
One national park tour operator, Tenley Thompson, said past Wyoming wolf hunts killed animals once readily visible in Grand Teton National Park, costing $250,000 in business. The impact of grizzly hunting would be twice that, she estimated.
Could hunters kill 72 bears?
Already one conservation group — Wyoming Wildlife Advocates — calculates that the states around Yellowstone could kill about 72 grizzlies the first year if protections were lifted today. Kent Nelson, board president and director of the group, said his organization derived the number from a draft tri-state formula and federal figures. He called the estimate “a very aggressive number” and “unsustainable.”
State and federal officials dispute the estimate. They won’t yet calculate how many bears might be available to hunters once protections are gone.
The information available on potential hunts in a draft agreement is vague and troublesome, Nelson said. “the tri-state memorandum of agreement can be interpreted many ways — and it has been,” he said. Consequently, “the states need to make it explicitly clear what their plans and intentions will be if and when Yellowstone grizzlies are delisted.”
Part of the conflict arises from the architecture of the landmark Endangered Species Act and Wyoming’s perspective of its authority over wildlife. Once grizzlies are off the threatened list, federal oversight becomes limited largely to population-scale indicators like overall numbers, distribution of bears and sex ratios.
Much of the rest — like how close one could hunt to a park boundary and whether hunting would be allowed in the 24,000-acre John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway between Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks — would be up to individual states.
Mattson’s problem with federal plans starts with foundational calculations about the population and whether numbers are growing. Whether grizzlies’ food — from diminished cutthroat trout to vanishing whitebark pine nuts — is in jeopardy is another disagreement. Mattson believes changing diets is forcing bears to the fringes of the ecosystem where they face danger. Moreover, he’s worried that any hunting season might inadvertently target female bears that are ready to breed and those most likely to connect ecosystems and spread genetic diversity.
Also, the draft plan among Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to divide up mortalities will cut national parks and the Wind River Indian Reservation out of hunting discussions, Mattson says. “There are entities that have jurisdiction over significant fractions of the population who are not invited to be part of the process,” he said. “They have back-row seats.”
A reasonable hunting season would target few bears. “I would argue if you were trying to be prudent and making forecasts with the data in hand, you would probably plan on killing no more than eight males in the entire ecosystem, maybe only four females.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik and Michael Thabault, assistant regional director for ecological services with the USFWS in Denver, wouldn’t make hypothetical calculations. But Mattson’s suggestions sound wrong, Nesvik said.
“My reaction is that sounds low,” he said. Yellowstone grizzlies have sustained much higher mortality in the past and the population has increased.
Connecting ecosystems and gene pools
Linking separated grizzly ecosystems and gene pools is a big goal of conservationists. “The main security we can look to for the future is through connecting the Yellowstone population with grizzly bears elsewhere to the north and west,” Mattson said. “The key is not to allow a few adolescent males to sprint across but to let females occupy habitat closer to each other. It’s females on the periphery that are going to be the most important members of this population and guarantors of connectivity — but only if we let them live.”
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepares to let go most of its control, it can’t impose too much of its will on independent state game agencies. “We’ve been working with the states to try to get regulatory mechanisms to be protective of the bear,” Thabault said. “The states have discussed connectivity [between ecosystems]. I think they recognize and acknowledge some discretion should be exercised in areas that are connectivity corridors.
“In particular, the State of Montana — they have a goal to minimize mortality between the Northern Continental Divide [ecosystem] and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That doesn’t mean they can’t hunt, but I think they have in their minds a management paradigm that would minimize mortality of bears that are migrating.”
States can and have made reasonable hunting decisions, he said. “We did get a commitment from the state [of Wyoming] not to hunt [wolves] in the John D. Rockefeller Parkway, for instance,” he said.
But only the governor-appointed Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners can decide whether grizzlies are hunted in the 24,000-acre reserve, Nesvik said. Wyoming Game and Fish Department or other state officials won’t constrict the commission’s authority by making non-hunting assurances that are the legal purview of the board. “We’ve told [Thabault] we don’t have any immediate plans,” to hunt in the parkway Nesvik, said. “But we’ve made no commitment.”
Will parks’ voices be heard?
Potential hunting along national park boundaries also is not a matter for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, Thabault said. Grizzly bears are a biologically “recovered” species no longer in danger. Upon delisting, which bears are hunted and where “is not an ESA issue,” he said, and thus not under the jurisdiction of USFWS. “We’ve encouraged the Park Service and the states to get together so the states can establish management regimes that can be sensitive to Park Service concerns.”
Nesvik agrees. “On an annual basis the states will bring the parks to a meeting where any discretionary mortality is discussed,” he said. “I think that is a first step in showing that the department — the three game and fish departments — are committed to meeting with the parks and listening.”
Nesvik also discounted Mattson’s fears of fringe females becoming targets. Wyoming has promised not to allow mothers with cubs at their sides to be hunted. That, however, makes the very females that are ready to breed vulnerable, Mattson said.
Nesvik looks at it another way. If cubs stay one or two years by their mothers’ sides, he said, “basically that takes two-thirds [or three-quarters] of the adult females and protects them from harvest. [Overall,] the intent would be not to kill any females.” But since it’s difficult to tell sexes apart in the field, some allowance would have to be made for female mortalities in any hunting program.
Regarding roadside bears, the most famous, known as 399, is a prodigious breeder. It “would most likely be protected as a female with cubs,” Nesvik said.
Neither he nor Thabault is overly worried about connecting isolated populations. “The position of the Service on this one is the genetic health of this population is pretty robust,” Thabault said. “We believe natural migration will occur eventually.”
If genetic diversity fades, trucking a bear to Yellowstone from another population is an option.
“It’s not the default,” Thabault said. “It is an option of last resort. It is not inconsistent with the administration of the [Endangered Species] Act.”
Such readings of the landmark wildlife law are untested, Mattson said. The ESA is subject to “an ongoing interpretation … by judges and managers.” With an at-risk population such as Yellowstone’s, connection with other groups of bears is the best insurance for persistence. The best insurance of connectivity is under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, he said.
Wyoming Game and Fish Commission would address the moth feeding sites too, Nesvik said. “That’s a discussion that needs to be had — what potential regulations would there be to protect bears that are congregated?”
Grizzlies are usually active on the talus in August, he said, so a hunting season might not overlap with the time grizzlies assemble in groups on the slopes.
Craighead promotes habitat
The release of the government’s three-point delisting proposal — a delisting rule, a conservation strategy and a revised demographic recovery criteria — will be a milestone in the history of the Endangered Species Act. Lance Craighead, son of biologist Frank Craighead who, with brother John, first drew national attention to the troubled Yellowstone icon, predicted significant public attention.
“There’s going to be a lot of publicity and it will make people aware of the Endangered Species Act,” Craighead said. Compared to other troubled species like the northern spotted owl, the snail darter and even greater sage grouse, “bears are a lot more charismatic.”
Frank Craighead died in 2001. Twin brother John lives in Montana.
Even though the two had stark differences with Yellowstone over how to manage grizzlies, the twins would be comfortable with the science surrounding Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population today, Lance Craighead said.
“They definitely wouldn’t think the biologists are trying to cover the fact that bears are actually going extinct, which is what some people think,” he said. But what to do next — that’s trickier.
“The management aspect – that’s where it gets real problematic for everybody,” Craighead said. Obviously what they have been doing so far under the ESA has been working. Whatever management replaces it should try to be as similar as the current management as possible if you want to keep things going the way they are.”
Regardless of genetic studies about the Yellowstone population, “it still is small enough that they need to get genes in there from other populations — for the long term,” Craighead said. That’s hard to guarantee in a federal scheme. “One hundred years is way beyond the scope of most government programs,” he said. “One hundred years is nothing in terms of a population persisting.
“We’ve got enough habitat around Yellowstone right now that we can maintain a population for quite a while,” he said. “But we’re constantly chipping away at it.”
For example, grizzlies are finally moving into a roadless area in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest, he said. “There’s dozens of user groups that want to carve it up and kind of decrease its value for grizzly bears,” Craighead said. “I think if we want to have grizzly bears we have to keep all of the un-roaded country that’s around the ecosystem and maybe even restore some more. That’s the biggest long-range problem I see.”
Craighead’s father Frank would appreciate how far grizzlies have come, Lance said. Last fall, a grizzly ambled across the family’s yard in Grand Teton National Park.
“I almost walked into him,” Craighead said. “There had never been bears in the Tetons during my life until now.”