JACKSON — To illustrate the potential magnitude of a state grizzly bear hunt, Wyoming Game and Fish department calculated hunters could have legally shot up to six male and four female bears during a hypothetical season in 2017.
Agency officials presented those figures in Jackson last week, part of an eight-town tour to collect residents’ input on grizzly bear management. While the meetings are designed to gather public sentiment and ideas on everything from research to conflict resolution, the prospect of a hunting season is paramount in the minds of conservationists, hunters, stockmen and others.
“That’s why a lot of you people are here, I imagine,” Dan Thompson, the agency’s large carnivore section supervisor, told a crowd of 80 persons at the Jackson meeting.
The department will consider public comments from the listening tour, which ends Dec. 4 in Lander, then possibly present a hunting proposal for public comment early next year. Any plan is expected to be prepared in time for the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s April meeting, the scheduled time the commission votes to set hunting seasons for the year.
Until this week, agency officials have declined to speculate what the scoping meetings might produce, what the department might recommend and how the commission might vote. Last Wednesday, however, Jackson regional wildlife supervisor Brad Hovinga broke that silence.
Asked whether he thought the state would allow a hunt, he said there is a “high probability the department’s going to go that way — at some point.”
Federal sideboards remain to ensure 500 bears
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed Yellowstone ecosystem grizzlies from the list of threatened species earlier this year, turning over management to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Grizzlies have been protected almost continuously since 1975, when there were fewer than 140 in the ecosystem.
Since then the population has grown and spread beyond the 19,279 square-mile Demographic Monitoring Area in which the official population is estimated annually. Wyoming, Idaho and Montana must maintain at least 500 grizzlies in the DMA to keep the species off federal protection lists. The goal is for a population of around 674, the average between 2002 and 2014.
In addition to a Wyoming quota, Idaho and Montana could institute hunts in their portion of the ecosystem. Hunt quotas there would be much lower than in Wyoming because they contain correspondingly less grizzly habitat. Wyoming has 58 percent of the ecosystem habitat and therefore is entitled to that portion of huntable bears.
Game and Fish estimated a current DMA population of 695 grizzlies in producing its hypothetical hunt numbers for this year. A hunt of females would be limited to “independent” bears traveling without cubs, according to an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In addition to the population minimums, females with cubs must be well-distributed across the DMA and total mortalities — deaths from all causes including hunting, vehicle collisions and agency culling of problem bears — must not exceed certain parameters. Bears outside the monitoring area are not counted in the annual population estimates and it is uncertain how they might figure into a hunting season and agency quotas. Females traveling with cubs would be protected there.
At the Jackson meeting, sentiments ranged from pro- to anti-hunting, including strong feelings in this tourism-oriented town that the state should recognize the economic value of grizzlies to wildlife viewers and visitors from around the world.
Asked if he favored hunting, one attendee stated “absolutely.” Regarding the prospect of hunting, another said “it shocks me.”
Officials told attendees any hunt season would be “based on science,” and the population would persist. If the public overwhelmingly said it did not want a hunting season, “there would not be a hunting proposal,” Cody regional supervisor Dan Smith told WyoFile. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” he said.
Among the ideas proposed were a prohibition on hunting in the 24,000-acre John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway between Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Grizzlies should not be hunted on some high-elevation talus slopes where they gather seasonally in groups to forage for army cutworm moths, an attendee said.
Other proposals called for mandatory education of hunters and for hunts to focus on bears known to have a history of conflicts with people, their property and livestock. Game and Fish, which would charge $600 for a resident grizzly license and $6,000 for a non-resident one, should seek revenue sources other than hunting licenses, one attendee said.
Game and Fish also gathered ideas about population monitoring, research, conflict management, outreach and education.
No hunting in Jackson Hole?
The department spent an average of $2.06 million on grizzly bear conservation between FY 2012-2016, officials told WyoFile. In fiscal year 2015, the agency paid $457,516 for livestock and other property losses from grizzly bears, according to department data.
The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and the group Wyoming Wildlife Advocates have challenged Game and Fish over a potential hunt of grizzlies, listed as “trophy” game by the agency. Wildlife is a top draw for visitors in Teton County’s tourism-driven economy, the chamber said in an April letter to Game and Fish. Consequently, hunt areas and quotas should “explicitly account for the economic value that bears represent for tourism and businesses in Wyoming.”
This could include “significantly reduced or no trophy hunting in and around Jackson Hole,” the letter said. Also, Wyoming should not immediately institute a hunt, then chamber president Jeff Golightly and chairwoman Julie Faupel wrote.
Visitors would pay an extra $41 to see a bear, according to a study in Yellowstone. Authors said the figure might have been higher if they had included a figure more than $50 for the hypothetical guarantee.
Tourism generated $1.02 billion in Teton County in 2016, including $54 million in state and local taxes, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates said. “There is no economic justification for hunting grizzlies in Teton County,” the group said in a flyer it distributed at last week’s meeting. “There is no scientific justification for hunting grizzlies in Teton County; There is no cultural justification for hunting grizzlies in Teton County.”
Grizzly supporters have filed at least six suits challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove the Yellowstone grizzly from the threatened species list. Those include action by the Humane Society of the United States and Fund for Animals; WildEarth Guardians; Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and National Parks Conservation Association; the Crow Indian Tribe et al.; the Alliance for Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council and Western Watersheds Project; and Jackson Hole and Illinois resident and attorney Robert Aland.