Wyoming considers grizzly hunt after Trump team took bear off endangered list
It might soon be grizzly bear hunting season in Wyoming.
In the wake of a Trump administration decision last summer to remove the bear from the endangered species list, the state is considering considering allowing hunters to kill up to two dozen Yellowstone-area bears.
It would be the first grizzly bear hunt in the Lower 48 states since the icons of the Western United States were put on the endangered species list in 1975.
The prospect of a new hunting season for grizzlies has long been a source of controversy among residents near and patrons of Yellowstone National Park as the grizzly population has recovered to about 700 members in the area.
Anti-hunting advocates, including many environmental and Native American groups, contend the bear is still under threat from broad changes to the Yellowstone ecosystem. But as their numbers increased, hunting advocates and the state's Wyoming Game and Fish Department point out, so have conflicts ranging from raided garbage cans to stalked livestock.
Moving the grizzly off the endangered species list, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said last June, was "one of America's great conservation successes." Yet the decision meant the species could once again be hunted in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
The Obama administration initially proposed taking the grizzly off the endangered list in 2016 before delaying a final decision after receiving a flood of more than 650,000 public comments on the proposal.
More broadly under President Donald Trump, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service has declined dozens of petitions to list a number of species as endangered or threatened, including several linked to climate change. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers want to rewrite to the Endangered Species Act in ways that empower states in listing decisions and make other reforms.
While grizzlies within Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks remain protected, those that stray outside now fall under the jurisdiction of state wildlife managers. Wyoming opened a comment period on the proposed grizzly hunt last week. A final decision is expected by May.
Wyoming's proposal for its first grizzly hunt in 43 years would take "a very conservative approach," according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesperson Renny MacKay.
Licensed hunters would be allowed to take only a total of 12 bears - only two of which can be female - within the "demographic monitoring area" deemed suitable grizzly habitat surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Further from the parks, hunters can kill another 12 bears.
All grizzly hunters would undergo "mandatory education" in order to tell the difference between the genders, MacKay said. The proposal also takes the state's park tourism business into mind: Wyoming plans to prohibit hunting near highways that bring parkgoers into Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
"We're doing a whole bunch of things to make this a highly regulated approach," MacKay said. He added the office found "people in Wyoming expressed support for a hunting season," based on eight in-person public meetings (plus a Facebook Live event) hosted by the department in the fall and winter about the bear hunt.
Even with those restrictions, Andrea Santarsiere, an Idaho-based senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, worried the taking of any female grizzlies could curtail the bear's recovery because "they have really slow reproductive rates."
"Killing just one or two could definitely impact the local grizzly bear population," Santarsiere said. "Killing 14 could have far-reaching consequences."
Back from the brink of extinction in the Yellowstone area, the grizzly population grew from an estimated 136 bears in 1975 to 757 in 2014. Since then, though, the population has contracted slightly, to 717 bears in 2015 and then to 695 bears the following year, according to annual reports from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
In contrast, as many as 50,000 grizzlies once roamed what became the Lower 48 states before hunting shrunk their footprint to just about 1,000 grizzlies living in northern Idaho and Montana, near Glacier National Park, and a handful in Washington, in addition to the Yellowstone grizzlies.
Environmentalists highlight ongoing ecological challenges to grizzlies' food supply. An invasive lake trout, for example, has crowded out the native trout species - and because lake trout prefer to dwell deeper in the water than their native cousins, they are harder for bears to hunt.
Insect infestation, fungal infection and rising temperatures have also contributed to the problems with another source of nourishment: the white bark pine, whose seeds provide protein to bears just before winter hibernation. Concerns about the decline in the pines prompted a federal court in 2007 to rule against an initial de-listing of the bear.
Last month, Montana wildlife officials decided against holding a grizzly hunt. "Holding off on hunting for now, I believe, will help demonstrate our commitment to long term recovery," said Martha Williams, Montana's wildlife director. Idaho is still considering what to do in response to the delisting.
A potential hunt is hardly the only way Wyoming is trying to deal with the growing grizzly population. The town of Cody, for example, recently chose to erect an electric fence around a landfill that attracted bears. And through its Bear Wise Wyoming program, the state educates residents throughout bear country on how to properly store barbecue grills and pet food to deter the curious carnivore from coming around homes.
Story by Dino Grandoni. Grandoni is an energy and environmental policy reporter and the author of PowerPost's daily tipsheet on the beat, The Energy 202. Before The Post, he was the climate and energy reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered the intersection of science, industry and government.