A Wyoming wildlife commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve the state's first grizzly bear hunt in more than four decades, a proposal that could lead to the killing of as many as 22 bears just one year after Yellowstone-area grizzlies were removed from the endangered species list.
The decision, which opens the door for the largest grizzly hunt in the Lower 48 and the state's first since 1974, marks a major milestone in a divisive debate over protections for one the West's most iconic animals.
Grizzly bears outside Alaska, where hunting is allowed, were federally protected in 1975, when only about 136 of the animals remained in and around Yellowstone National Park. Their numbers had rebounded to about 700 by last year, prompting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the Yellowstone population and leave its management to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Under Wyoming's proposal, a maximum of one female or 10 male grizzlies could be killed this fall inside the state's section of a federally designated "demographic monitoring area" - a zone of prime bear habitat where biologists track the species' population. Another 12, male or female, could be hunted in what state officials describe as the more "human-dominated landscape" outside that area.
No hunting will be allowed inside Yellowstone, nearby Grand Teton National Park or the road that connects them. The Wyoming plan also includes a no-hunt buffer zone in a region east of Grand Teton where several bears adored by photographers and tourists are known to roam and den.
Federal biologists say limited hunting is unlikely to harm the overall grizzly population in the Yellowstone area, and Wyoming wildlife officials at Wednesday's meeting described the proposal as conservative.
"The question is not whether you hunt grizzly bears or not," Republican Gov. Matt Mead told C-SPAN earlier this month.
"The question is whether grizzly bears have grown enough in terms of population and in habitat that they can be a sustainable species. And clearly they have."
But the plan has faced strong opposition from conservation groups and others who say it will imperil a population that was only recently deemed to have recovered.
"Allowing a trophy hunt of these majestic animals - the second-slowest mammal to reproduce in North America - so soon after they lost Endangered Species protections does nothing to build public confidence in state management of grizzly bears," Bonnie Rice, a Sierra Club representative who spoke in opposition to the plan at the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission meeting, said in a statement after the vote.
More than 200 tribal nations condemned the idea of hunting an animal they consider sacred and proposed to instead relocate grizzlies to tribal lands. Dozens of wildlife photographers wrote a letter calling on Mead to prioritize the wishes - and dollars - of tourists who come to the region in hopes of spotting "one of the most storied, beloved and photographed bear populations in the world."
In another recent letter to the governor, 73 scientists said the hunt would endanger a vulnerable population that has lost food sources, including white bark pine, due to climate change, and limit Yellowstone bears' ability to connect with a larger population of grizzlies in northwest Montana.
(Those bears, in and around Glacier National Park, remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, although Fish and Wildlife is considering delisting them as well.)
The letter, written by the former federal grizzly bear biologist David Mattson, said allowing a dozen deaths outside the demographic monitoring area, where approximately 80 to 100 grizzlies live, would be "tantamount to planned extirpation" in that region.
Wednesday's vote came after a presentation by state game officials and about two hours of live-streamed public comment. Supporters included hunting outfitters and ranchers, some of whom cast opposition to the plan as driven by national organizations and non-Wyoming residents.
"Those of us that live, work and play with the grizzly bear have paid a higher price for the recovery of the bears. I think that's lost on the general public," said state Rep. Jim Allen, R, a rancher and outfitter. "Wyoming owns the wildlife."
Opponents included a California woman who said she drives each year to Wyoming to see wildlife but would stop if the hunt was approved and a Wyoming resident who said she regularly spots grizzlies near her home.
Representatives from several conservation and wildlife groups also spoke, several of whom argued that hunting would add unnecessary deaths to the dozens of grizzlies killed by humans each year as the bears expand farther into developed areas.
At least 56 grizzlies died within the demographic monitoring area last year, many after being hit by cars, shot in self-defense by hunters or lethally "removed" by wildlife agencies for killing livestock or seeking out human food. Of seven deaths recorded this year, four have been in Wyoming.
Three were killed by state bear managers - one for breaking into a building for food, and two for "frequenting a calving area" and "bold behavior toward humans." The fourth, an elderly bear that could not lift its hind legs, was euthanized, according to federal records.
Like conservation groups, Wyoming officials cited those numbers as talking points, but they used them instead to justify a hunt. Hunters, they say, could help weed out problem bears.
"The agency is removing every year several female and male bears for conflict reasons, and if hunting reduces that, it's a good thing," Brian Nesvik, chief game warden for the state Game and Fish Department, told the Casper Star-Tribune.
Chris Colligan, a wildlife program coordinator who focuses on preventing bear-human conflict for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, told commissioners that there's little science to support that argument.
Colligan, who identified himself as an "avid elk hunter," said he's often asked why he opposes a grizzly hunt.
"And I'll just say that grizzly bears are different. Grizzly bears are not white-tailed deer," he said, noting the bears' s
low reproduction rate.
"We don't have the margin of error that we have for other species."
Despite its approval, the hunt could be stymied in court later this year. Several lawsuits have challenged the delisting of Yellowstone grizzlies, and a US District Court judge earlier this year ordered all parties to combine their arguments into a single set of briefs.
A decision is expected this summer, before the September start of hunting seasons in Wyoming and Idaho.
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