As grizzly hunt nears, all eyes on Montana court

Photographer Tom Mangelsen is on the list of grizzly bear hunting license holders, although he would “shoot ’em with a camera” and keep another person out of the field instead of trying to kill a bear. He recently took a grizzly bear ecology course that’s required for prospective hunters. (Sue Cedarholm)

As conservationists await a court date that could stall a proposed Sept. 1 Wyoming grizzly bear hunt, potential shooters last week took a mandatory two-hour grizzly bear ecology class that included instructions on how to make a clean kill.

Judge Dana Christensen is scheduled to hear arguments in six consolidated lawsuits in the federal district court in Missoula, Montana on Thursday. The “comprehensive hearing” could halt Wyoming’s hunt that’s scheduled to begin on Saturday, one of the plaintiffs, Robert Aland, said in an email.

“I understand that a packed courtroom is expected…” wrote Aland, a grizzly activist, attorney and resident of Chicago and Jackson Hole.

As Aland, numerous environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state of Wyoming and hunting groups girded for the hearing, prospective hunters were learning the grizzly bear basics. One of those students was Tom Mangelsen, a renowned Jackson-based wildlife photographer and activist who applied for and won a lottery draw for one of 22 potential licenses.

A former hunter who “got an A+ in marksmanship,” Mangelsen said the course taught about the differences between black and grizzly bears, “also where the vital organs are to make an ethical kill.” He is old enough that he is not required to take a firearms safety course and there’s no certification required to determine if his shooting skills are still up to par. He paid $602 for his chance to hunt a grizzly.

Photographer Tom Mangelsen used a photograph of “rockstar” grizzly 399 and cubs on the cover of a book about Grand Teton National Park bears. (Tom Mangelsen)

Mangelsen has his gear ready — a Nikon D5 camera with an 80-400 zoom lens. He might ready his 600 millimeter lens as well.

Mangelsen plans to “shoot ’em with a camera.” If the hunt begins and the handful of hunters in line before him either kill bears or see their 10-day licenses expire, Mangelsen’s permit would become active. His active license would preclude another hunter from going into the zones where Mangelsen would be allowed to hunt during Mangelsen’s 10-day window.

The two-hour class reinforced his aversion to trophy hunting, Mangelsen said in an interview. Hunters are not required to retrieve and eat the meat of a grizzly bear because Wyoming classifies the species, along with wolves and cougars, as trophy game, not big game.

“In other words, you kill bears or cougars or wolves for fun,” Mangelsen said, and hunters can leave the meat to spoil. “You couldn’t do that with an elk or deer. You’d be fined for wanton waste.”

399 on a spit?

Although hunters would not be required to save the meat of a dead grizzly bear, Mangelsen said the Wyoming Game and Fish Department provided him with links to websites that suggest how to cook a bear (375 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-25 minutes per pound). “I only got a quarter through one of those [webpages],” he said. “I couldn’t imagine 399 on a barbecue.”

Bear 399 is the world-famous grizzly sow that’s birthed 17 cubs, Mangelsen said. She is on the cover of his book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” with three cubs. She frequents Grand Teton National Park but wanders beyond its borders, perhaps even beyond a no-hunting buffer zone Wyoming Game and Fish Commission set to help protect what Mangelsen calls “rockstar” grizzlies.

“Shooting sentient animal with emotions and intelligence for fun is barbaric,” Mangelsen said. Others have raised the issue with Wyoming’s chief game warden Brian Nesvik, Nesvik said in an interview.

“I’ve heard from folks that are ethically concerned by that and bothered by that,” Nesvik said of the trophy game designation. The trophy issue is one of ethics and values — public policy but not biology — he said. As such, decisions about a species’ trophy or game status are made by Wyoming lawmakers.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department published this map showing the various hunt areas, including hunt area 7, where up to a dozen grizzlies could be killed. (Wyoming Game and Fish Dept.)

The Boone and Crockett Club — one of the country’s leading hunting organizations and cataloger of extraordinary specimens harvested by hunters — promotes ethical fair chase hunting of free-ranging North American big game. It lists a series of principles for big-game hunting, including “making full use of game animals taken.”

In a statement regarding the removal of the grizzly bear from the federal threatened species list last year, the organization said it would work with other conservation leaders to support “ethical, scientifically regulated hunting,” once bears no longer had federal protection, according to OutDoors Unlimited Magazine.

Cooking grizzlies — or not cooking them — might make for campfire debate, but the issue of trophy game versus big game designations isn’t likely to come before the court on Thursday, said Andrea Santarsiere, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“That won’t be capture by the lawsuit,” she said Monday. “The lawsuit only challenges the federal delisting rule. There won’t be really any discussion of trophy hunting.”

Wyoming’s turn to manage grizzlies

Thursday’s hearing consolidates six cases, Santarsiere said, including actions brought by the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and other Indian Tribes that claim the federal government failed to consult with them regarding the delisting. Other involved parties include Santarsiere’s group, the National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Western Environmental Law Center, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, the Humane Society of the United States and others. Safari Club International, the National Rifle Association, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation and the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming filed papers to support the federal government in its defense.

The suit centers on three points, starting with the contention that grizzlies are in decline due to climate change and other factors. The Center also argues that the federal government has not considered the impact delisting one portion of the grizzly population — the Yellowstone Ecosystem portion —  will have on other existing or potential grizzly colonies. Finally, a conservation strategy or management plan, the linchpin of the bear’s future, was radically changed without adequate public comment, Santarsiere said.

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Game and Fish’s Nesvik said he believes it is time for Wyoming to finally have authority over grizzlies, 43 years after the federal government stepped in and protected them under the Endangered Species Act.

“As a wildlife manager I feel very, very comfortable that state management is the right thing for this particular species,” he said. “I think we’ve already demonstrated that the state is capable of managing this in a very conservative and very responsible way. By all scientific measure and with a conservative population measure, grizzlies are doing quite well in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

Nevertheless, all eyes are on Missoula. “We’ve talked to a lot of hunters about the hearing this week,” he said. “There’s certainly trepidation.”

But also among prospective hunters “there’s certainly a lot of excitement,” he said. “They have been extremely engaged with the department, trying to learn about grizzly bear biology and distribution, abundance, those kinds of things. We’ve had a good experience with the hunters on the [license] list.

“Just the fact we’re at this point we’re having this discussion … it still does mark a pretty cool conservation success story,” Nesvik said. “The species is doing quite well.”

Wyoming seeks to help maintain a population of 674 grizzlies in the Demographic Monitoring Area, a 19,270-square-mile census area surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. In 2017, bear managers estimated 718 grizzlies in the DMA. Wyoming’s proposed season could see as many as a dozen bears shot dead outside the DMA — where grizzlies are not counted toward the population goal — and another 10 inside the census area.

Bears could be shot inside the primary conservation area

Wyoming’s hunt, should it take place, begins Sept. 1 in hunt area 7, fringe country around the demographic monitoring area where Wyoming believes bears are socially unacceptable and where their presence should be discouraged. Hunting inside the DMA, the area where the critical annual census takes place to ensure the population endures, would begin in the middle of September.

Grizzly bear recovery zones around Yellowstone National Park include the Primary Conservation Area, center, where outgoing park superintendent Dan Wenk believes the bears shouldn’t be hunted. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

A smaller area inside the DMA is called the Primary Conservation Area or the Recovery Zone. It includes all of Yellowstone National Park, the northern part of Grand Teton National Park and surrounding land that’s mostly national forest. The primary conservation area covers about 9,208 square miles and hunting would be allowed there, except in the parks, in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway and in the buffer zone outside Grand Teton.

Dan Wenk, the outgoing superintendent of Yellowstone National Park who has sought to protect Yellowstone grizzlies for the benefit of tourists among other reasons, disagrees with that strategy. He believes grizzly bears should not be hunted in the primary conservation area, he said in a telephone press conference early this month. Photographer Mangelsen would rather no hunting be allowed anywhere.

He said his hunter orientation provided a lot of information, perhaps too much for a person to absorb. He’s doubtful hunters will be able to distinguish between sexes beyond 25 yards or so. He doesn’t think some legal weapons — pistols and bows, for example — are appropriate. “All those weapons except a high-powered rifle are really inadequate to efficiently and ethically kill a bear quickly,” he said.

Grizzly hunters may stake out the gut pile of a legally killed elk, Mangelsen said, because grizzlies have learned to search for such leftovers. “It’s the same as baiting,” which is generally illegal, he said. “It’s no sport in my opinion.”

The larger scale hunting of female grizzlies outside the DMA — up to a dozen could be killed — would harm the ecosystem population, Mangelsen said. “We’re going backwards,” he said of the Wyoming hunting plan.

Nesvik isn’t swayed. He was recently in the backcountry where “there was plenty of opportunity to see grizzly bears,” he said. “That’s always a great experience, always has been since I was a kid.”

Asked whether he thought hunting would diminish that opportunity, he said “absolutely not.”

Santarsiere is helping organize a rally at the courthouse for the morning of the hearing. “August 30 is going to be a monumental day for the Yellowstone grizzly bear,” she said, “one way or another.”

Categories: EnvironmentFeaturedNatural ResourceswildlifeYellowstone grizzlies
Tags: Andrea SantarsiereBrian Nesvikcenter for biological diversitygrand teton national parkGrizzly hunthuntingTom MangelsenWyoming Game and Fishyellowstone
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) 690-5586. Follow Angus on Twitter at @AngusThuermer