The country’s top wildlife official wrote state game chiefs in September agreeing the Yellowstone-area grizzly bear population could decline to 600 — 114 fewer than today’s count of 714 — once federal protections are lifted.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe’s Sept. 24 letter to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana officials was confirming the minimum number of bears and other measures the four agencies had agreed to at that point. Until the 600-bear trigger is reached, “discretionary mortality” of grizzly bears — which could include hunting — could continue.
Ashe and state officials are negotiating a complex agreement that would see the bear removed from protections of the Endangered Species Act and put under state management. Such a move would open the door to grizzly bear hunting in the three states but not in Yellowstone and most of Grand Teton national parks.
Details of the talks have been closely guarded, and state and federal officials have not confirmed details of the September letter obtained by WyoFile over the weekend.
Ashe and the three state wildlife directors met twice in September, Ashe wrote, at which time they hammered out the details. “Based on these two meetings, I believe we have a mutually understood process that will allow the Service to proceed with a proposed delisting proposal…” to remove the Yellowstone grizzly from ESA protection, Ash’s letter said.
The bottom-line number is one of several trigger points set in the letter. When bears number between 600 and 673, annual female bear losses — including through expected hunting seasons — would be limited to 7.6 percent, and to 15 percent of the male population. More liberal losses — 10 percent female and 22 percent male — would be allowed when there are more than 747 bears, the letter states.
But federal and state agencies did not wrap up all aspects of post-delisting grizzly bear management in September, and Ashe’s letter acknowledges that. One point of discussion appears to be whether matters usually left to states — like prohibiting the shooting of a mother bear with cubs by its side — could be required by the federal government before turning over authority.
“States have agreed to consider additional regulatory mechanisms that will be part of individual state management plans/regulations…” Ashe said in the letter. Those state regulations would be referenced in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisting rule, bringing them under federal jurisdiction, the letter says.
Agencies still working on final plans
“We’re looking at regulatory mechanisms that would be included in a new conservation strategy,” Wyoming Game and Fish Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik said in a Nov. 12 interview with WyoFile. “That’s where the discussions have occurred. What needs to be identified in a delisting rule? What is under the purview of the three states?”
Wyoming wouldn’t manage grizzlies down to a minimum number, whatever that turns out to be, Nesvik said in November. In that interview, he said no final number had been agreed to. “We have not discussed that to this point,” he said.
Wyoming’s wolf plan hews closely to the minimum population requirements set by the federal government. But wolves, as a species, reproduce faster than grizzly bears.
“I do not believe the Fish and Wildlife Service is interested in that same type of set of circumstances,” Nesvik said. “That has been part of the discussion. They’re interested in a different approach with bears.” Wyoming would “manage for a viable grizzly bear population well above the recovery criteria.”
Wyoming knows how to set big game and trophy hunting seasons, he said. “I think we would rely pretty heavily on our track record,” Nesvik said. For example, with black bears and mountain lions, “there’s certainly more [hunting] opportunity than there’s ever been,” he said.
“We would look to be able to manage grizzly bears in a manner consistent with the values we’ve held with those other species,” he said. “The public still needs to weigh in. The Game and Fish Commission has been very considerate of the fact the way we do business in this state is we include the public.”
Three critical pieces are necessary for delisting: a conservation strategy outlining long-term sideboards to ensure grizzly survival, an official proposed rule that sets administrative and legal parameters, and a document on population monitoring. After those are ushered through federal rulemaking and possible litigation, states would take over.
Federal and state officials are meeting in Missoula, Montana, for three days starting Tuesday when Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott is scheduled to give a delisting presentation and update.
— This story above has been updated to reflect that Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Scott Talbott is on the agenda for an update on grizzly delisting, not Brian Nesvik. Talbott is on the IGBC agenda with Matt Hogan, deputy regional director of the USFWS — Ed.
— Update: 7:15 p.m. December 7, 2015:
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department would recommend no hunting of mother grizzly bears with cubs-of-the-year at their side if and when it proposes a hunting season, an agency spokesman said Monday.
The state anticipates adopting regulations that follow “standard wildlife practices,” such as the prohibition against hunting mothers with cubs, Game and Fish spokesman Renny MacKay said. Wyoming could manage Yellowstone-area grizzly bears if and when federal protections are lifted as federal wildlife officials anticipate.
“It is something we would be willing to bring forward to the commission,” MacKay said of the prohibition. “We do that with mountain lions, we do that with black bears.”
Wyoming also is committed to a grizzly population that includes well-distributed females of reproductive age. That’s one of the federal benchmarks for determining whether the Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly still needs protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“That’s something Wyoming is absolutely committed to maintain,” MacKay said.
Several aspects of the delisting process still have to play out, including release by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of a conservation plan, a proposed rule and population-monitoring documents. Wyoming, Idaho and Montana also would have to adopt state regulations if they want to have hunting seasons.
Wyoming’s Game and Fish Commission, a body appointed by the governor, is charged with setting such regulations and seasons in Wyoming.
“Ultimately, if Wyoming takes over management of grizzly bears again, we have to ensure a recovered population,” MacKay said. “That’s at the heart of all of this. We want the flexibility to be able to adjust to changing conditions, changing populations and changing science.”
Sierra Club doesn’t like the idea of a 600-bear trigger before “discretionary mortality” ceases, said Bonnie Rice, senior representative for the organization’s Greater Yellowstone/Northern Rockies campaign.
“We disagree with driving down the population,” she said Monday. “Six hundred bears is well below the current estimate, so that is of great concern to us in terms of [potentially] reducing the population by over 100 bears.”
She and other conservationists still see threats to grizzlies, including that Yellowstone-area bears are an isolated population. Having fewer bears would decrease the chance of naturally connecting Yellowstone grizzlies with other populations, she said.
“One of the biggest things for us is linkage zones,” Rice said.
She’s also worried how states will balance and coordinate on the number of bears killed and how any multi-state limits might be enforced. “We don’t have that framework yet,” she said.
Other groups also reacted. “Once again we see Director Ashe cutting deals for political expediency instead of following the science,” Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement. “The Endangered Species Act is incredibly effective at recovering imperiled species, and will do so for grizzlies across their range, but only if they retain protections until the science clearly demonstrates recovery.”
Genetic isolation from other populations worries Western Watersheds Project, a spokesman for that group said in a statement. “Recovery isn’t a math equation, it’s a geography question,” said Josh Osher, Montana director for the group. “The states’ tentative agreement with the Service fails to ensure connectivity throughout the species’ range and fails to address the livestock operations that are the root cause of lethal conflict for the grizzly bear.”