Non-hunters who drew a Wyoming grizzly tag but intend to pocket it in hopes of “saving” a bear will likely have the same trivial impact on the hunt and grizzly population as deer hunters who think they’ll “save” the herd by buying and burning doe tags.
After all, every objective review of Wyoming’s pending two-tiered, 22-tag grizzly season finds it will have little or no impact on the bears’ population, assuming the season starts as planned in September. It could get scuttled by U.S. District chief judge Dana Christensen after a hearing Aug. 30 in Missoula, Montana. Several groups opposing the hunt filed lawsuits earlier this year challenging the grizzly’s removal from the federal government’s Endangered Species List. The lawsuits have been consolidated into one for the court’s review.
Despite Wyoming’s conservative, tightly controlled season structure, groups opposing the hunt also organized an international protest that encouraged people to apply for the limited grizzly tags in hopes of saving bears by keeping tags from hunters. Among those trying to monkey-wrench the hunt and application process were Jane Goodall, 84, a legend for her research on chimpanzees in Africa; and Cynthia Moss, who’s famous for protecting African elephants from poachers.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department processed 7,305 grizzly-hunt applications, according to Daniel Thompson, the agency’s large-carnivore section supervisor. A total of 2,857 applicants (39 percent) were nonresidents, who paid a nonrefundable $15 each to apply, providing $42,855 in revenues for WG&F.
Goodall and Moss apparently didn’t get drawn for a tag, but Wyoming resident and wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen did. Mangelsen is well-known for his work in National Geographic magazine, and his photographs have made a celebrity of “399,” a radio-collared 22-year-old female grizzly that hangs out with her offspring near roads inside Grand Teton National Park. Much like Cher, Madonna and other one-name celebrities, 399 draws crowds and paparazzi, but biologists who have long monitored her movements say she’s never been found in areas open to hunting.
And make no mistake: Wyoming’s plans for the Lower 48’s first grizzly hunting season since 1974 are tightly written and regulated. Hunting won’t be allowed in Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks. It also won’t be allowed within a quarter-mile of designated highways in open areas, and “dependent young” (cubs and yearlings) and sows with dependent young are protected. Further, licensed hunters must attend a training session on grizzly ecology, which helps distinguish behaviors and physical traits of male and female grizzlies.
The season includes two separate areas, each with specific dates and regulations. The most restrictive season runs Sept. 15 to Nov. 15 in units 1 through 6, and has a 10-tag, 10-grizzly quota, but only one female can be killed. These units form the “Demographic Monitoring Area” for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly population. This approximately 19,279-square-mile area lies east and south of Yellowstone National Park. The DMA’s grizzlies are closely monitored to determine the ecosystem’s population size and mortality limits.
Hunters receiving a DMA tag are restricted to one 10-day period, and no other hunters can go afield during another’s assigned period to ensure they don’t kill more than one female grizzly. The season ends if a hunter shoots a female grizzly, even if it’s the first bear taken. WG&F will issue hunters a satellite communications device so they can immediately register their kill wherever they’re hunting.
If a hunter kills a male grizzly, the next hunter on the list will be notified and cleared to hunt. And so it would continue until reaching the 10-bear quota or the season’s Nov. 15 closure. Mangelsen is No. 8 on the DMA season’s 10-tag list. If he receives permission to hunt during Wyoming’s grizzly season, he said he will use his camera all 10 days.
The other, more liberal, season runs Sept. 1 to Nov. 15 in Wyoming’s Unit 7 outside of units 1-6 in an area with less suitable habitat and a higher likelihood of human/bear conflicts. This season provides 12 tags for a 12-grizzly quota.
Thompson said the DMA season doesn’t begin until Sept. 15 to ensure grizzlies are no longer feeding in fairly open, high-elevation areas called “insect aggregation sites.” Biologists have confirmed 31 such sites and 14 possible sites where grizzlies feed on concentrations of army cutworm moths and ladybird beetles. Grizzlies find the moths beneath rocks in talus and scree.
Of the 2,857 nonresidents applying for grizzly tags, 2,327 (81 percent) sought the DMA season, which didn’t require successful applicants to immediately buy the hunting tag, which costs $602 for residents and $6,002 for nonresidents. Those drawing a DMA tag had 10 days to decide if they’d buy the license, and all 10 did so, Thompson said. Eight tags went to residents, and two went to nonresidents.
If litigation halts the hunt, those who bought hunting tags will be reimbursed. Of the 10 people chosen for the DMA season, it’s believed a second person – possibly No. 2 on the list – also opposes the hunt, but WG&F officials couldn’t confirm those reports.
“I’ve heard the same rumors you’ve heard,” said Thompson, who contends the agency worked closely with Wyoming’s citizens to craft regulations that sustain the grizzly population. The agency held public meetings to solicit comments and suggestions on how best to structure the hunt, gathering 9,500 comments from 3,300 individuals in the process.
“The people of Wyoming want this hunt,” Thompson said. “We definitely listened to them, even though we get accused of not listening. This is the right thing to do. We’ve invested over 40 years of blood, sweat and tears into recovering this species, and we’re not going to jeopardize this population by over harvesting them. People kind of forget that grizzlies are born every year and survive. We’re excited to move onto this next phase in the grizzly’s recovery.”
Thompson acknowledges the hunt’s opponents had a right to apply for the tags, and set up “Go Fund Me” accounts to pay for licenses protesters draw. Still, he thinks they could make better use of their donations. “I wish they’d put that much effort into on-the-ground conservation measures like bear-proof structures or bear-proof dumpsters; things that would help bears far more than just stopping a hunt,” he said.
Meat and Morality
Joe Kondelis, president of the Western Bear Foundation, a hunter-based nonprofit organization, shares Thompson’s viewpoint. But Kondelis also agrees hunt-opponents have a point in criticizing a Wyoming law that doesn’t require hunters to keep grizzly meat. He said the foundation wants to change that law to ensure all game meat is kept and consumed. Still, he finds it ironic that opponents seldom mention this long-standing law also covers black bears, which have always been hunted.
“(Opponents) like to use that term ‘trophy hunt,’ and claim hunters don’t want the meat,” Kondelis said. “I don’t know where they get that. How can they say we don’t want the meat when we haven’t had a grizzly hunt here since 1974? We encourage hunters to take everything out of the field to give the animal that respect. Bear hunters aren’t just after the hide. We’re for the meat and the hide.”
Jim Tantillo, a Cornell University (New York) professor who teaches environmental history and environmental ethics, and the philosophy and morality of hunting, sees other reasons for anti-hunting organizations to oppose grizzly hunts and the grizzly’s removal from Endangered Species Act protections.
“They beat that ESA drum because they’re accustomed to grizzlies being listed and, just like wolves, grizzlies are big fundraisers for them,” Tantillo said. “The more wolves and grizzlies that come off the Endangered Species List, the more it spells doom for their fundraisers. The next animals on that list don’t have the same appeal. If they have to go to the black-footed ferret, they’re not going to get those big donations. I’m not just being cynical. That’s a pragmatic strategy.”
Tantillo also thinks Wyoming’s tag lottery was the most democratic way to give people access to the grizzly hunt. He said if the state was only interested in making money off grizzlies – which opponents often claim – it would have auctioned the tags to the highest bidders.
“If Jane Goodall has friends willing to pay $500,000 for a grizzly tag, Wyoming probably could have raised $10 million for this hunt,” Tantillo said. “But even with the lottery, these groups get at least $30,000 worth of public relations for each $6,000 nonresident tag Wyoming has to sell them.
“Lotteries level the playing field for everyone,” Tantillo continued. “Lotteries make the process more democratic. A large number of (applicants) are mainly interested in gumming up the works, but you can’t screen applicants for intentions. The Wyoming Fish and Game Department can’t even take a position on someone’s intention to save an individual grizzly, other than make some off-the-record eye-rolling.”
Besides, Tantillo notes such tactics aren’t original. Hunters in deer camps across New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other big whitetail states have long tried to foil doe-reduction hunts by buying or applying for extra tags with no intention of using them.
“And if that didn’t work, they got their spouses to buy permits to tie up the applications,” Tantillo said.“The agencies don’t mind. They adapt. They just collect the money, recalculate the success rate and permits needed to reach their quotas, and issue more the next year. I assume Wyoming would do the same thing for future grizzly-hunt applications.”
Gary Alt, former head of Pennsylvania’s bear and deer programs, said Wyoming’s grizzly bear situation gives him déjà vu. During Alt’s career he heard the same arguments about tag allocations, bear damage, and warring factions. He said WF&G is simply responding to bear damage, human-grizzly encounters and other conflicts that wedge agencies in between people with competing demands and perspectives on large carnivores.
“Any time you close a hunting season and the years go by without one, god help the person who tries to restart it,” Alt said. “In this case, some biologists spent their entire careers bringing back the grizzly and retired before it was removed from the Endangered Species List. Bringing it back is going to be tricky. It’s going to get challenged and possibly delayed or canceled, just like Florida and New Jersey trying to restore black bear seasons. That’s just how things work in our country.”
Thompson said grizzly depredation on cattle is a consistent problem and, unlike other conflicts, doesn’t correlate with natural food abundance. That is, when natural foods are abundant, bears are less apt to prowl for artificial food sources near humans. Wyoming documented 401 cattle depredations the past three years by grizzlies, while grizzly conflicts involving garbage (125 the past three years) declined from 87 in 2015 to 31 in 2016 and seven in 2017.
WG&F resumed its management authority for grizzlies in 2017 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the GYE grizzly population from the federal Endangered Species List. The GYE population went on the ESA in 1975 when grizzly numbers in that region were estimated at 136. As of 2017, grizzly numbers were estimated to be 718, with estimates ranging from 640 to 796 based on 95 percent confidence intervals.
The GYE also includes eastern Idaho, northwestern Wyoming and southwestern Montana. Its grizzlies are one of five distinct populations in the Lower 48 managed for region-specific goals. Idaho plans to issue one grizzly bear tag for its Sept. 1 to Nov. 15 season. Montana will not hold a hunt this year.
Wyoming has long met the three annual criteria defining a “recovered population” for the GYE’s grizzlies:
- It exceeds the minimum 500 grizzly population and at least 48 females with cubs.
- Since 1999 it has exceeded the requirement that 16 of 18 bear-management units in the primary conservation area have females with young.
- It has met all “mortality thresholds” for independent males (20 percent mortality rate) and independent females and dependent young (9 percent mortality rates). In 2017, estimated mortality rates were 5.5 percent for cubs/yearlings, 8.4 percent for sows, and 13.2 percent for males
Pending Court Date
Despite such success, the hunt’s proponents won’t predict how Judge Christensen will rule after Aug. 30’s hearing in Missoula. However, it probably won’t take long. Evan Heuskinveld, CEO and president of the Sportsmen’s Alliance – a defendant-intervenor in the lawsuit – said everyone expects a ruling before the season’s Sept. 1 opening. And whichever way it goes, Heuskinveld doesn’t expect it to be the final verdict.
“It won’t be the end-all, be-all,” he said. “We should be celebrating the successful recovery of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the resumption of a hunting season, but instead we’re trying to ensure that the Endangered Species Act is applied correctly.
“We’ve lost the ability to have a national policy,” Heuskinveld continued. “What we’ve had is the ‘Hotel California’ approach: Once we check a large carnivore onto the list, we can’t check it back out. We want to manage wildlife populations, but our opponents want animal-by-animal welfare. We need to be able to return these species to state management once they’re recovered.”