Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: License to Kill or Coexist?

In Yellowstone most grizzly bears die from human causes, and most grizzly bear deaths are avoidable according to the federal government which has protected them since 1975. The spate of 46 grizzly bear deaths thus far this year is shocking, as is the recent rate:  an average of about one bear killed every 2 days since September.  There have never been so many illegal killings reported in one year, 10 and counting. Applying a federal estimator to account for unknown mortality, about 70 bears or 10% of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population is dead this year.

These numbers are part of a larger trend of increasing mortalities that call into question the wisdom of removing protections (“delisting”) and legalizing a bear trophy hunt.

A review of past agency recommendations, discussed below, underscore that much more can and must be done to ensure the safety and well-being of grizzly bears and people in this world-class ecosystem. The documents containing these recommendations also reveals some deeply twisted thinking about legalizing killing of grizzly bears to reduce poaching – and the profound problem of the government echo-chamber.

I can attest to the enormity of the task the agencies face in their work to reduce human-bear conflicts. For 30 years I worked in non-profit organizations where I played a part in making some communities a safer place for bears and people. Among other things, this involved unglamorous work with citizens and government officials to better manage garbage.  The hardest part was (and still is) figuring out how to pay for it.

But times have changed, and climate change will continue to alter our world and that of the grizzly bear (link).  According to federal data, since shortly after the 1988 Yellowstone fires, peoples’ garbage stopped being the leading cause of grizzly bear mortality. Hunters and livestock operators have taken its place.

Yes, bears still die from being habituated to garbage and more needs to be done on that front. But unless we get a grip on the escalating problems involving hunters and cows, grizzly bears will likely edge towards extinction once again – a scenario the public and the government have worked so hard to avoid for the last 40 years. Simple preventative steps can be taken. But they require political will, openness, and compassion.

Four agency documents, based on analyses of conflicts and mortalities, summarize clear and straightforward measures. The reports consist of one in 1991 by the Hunter/Grizzly Bear Interactions Task force, one in 2001 covering Recommendations from the Hunter-Related Grizzly Bear Task Force (I served on the task force, along with hunters and agency personnel), one in 2004 entitled the Yellowstone Mortality and Conflicts Reduction Report, and, finally, one in 2009 also entitled the Yellowstone Mortality and Conflicts Reductions Report (link). In my summary below, I also relied on a 2001 Statement by Robert Jackson, long-time Yellowstone Park Backcountry Ranger, on hunter conflicts in the Thorofare region along the southeast boundary of Yellowstone Park, and used information from a 2000 white paper on grizzly bear mortalities and conflicts by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

Enforcing the Law 

All of these reports focused on the need to improve the handling of bear attractants by hunters and livestock operators, primarily through better law enforcement and increased field presence by agency personnel. The responsibility here rests with state game agencies (through authority over licensing hunters), Forest Service (through authority over permitting outfitters and livestock operators), US Fish and Wildlife Service (through authority over endangered species), and Grand Teton Park in the case of its elk hunt.

No matter how much work is done to educate hunters and ranchers about bear spray, bear behavior, or keeping a clean camp (and a lot IS being done), careless and indifferent people can spoil things for bears and everyone else. Since the data show that outfitted hunts in Wyoming are a leading cause of dead bears, compliance with basic preventative measures among Wyoming outfitters, who are required to have a Forest Service permit, would be a good place to focus.  So would improving compliance among ranchers using Bridger Teton National Forest’s Upper Green River area, one of the ecosystem’s worst  black holes for grizzly bears.

The 2004 conflict reduction report correctly stated that support by the judicial system and by legislators for prosecution of offenders is important, and even went so far as to say that managers should be cultivating such support.  But the ones who dominate the current public discourse are those who are calling for delisting and killing more bears.  They don’t want the laws enforced. Making matters worse, after delisting, law enforcement will be in the hands of notoriously anti-carnivore states.

Regulation vs education: are new rules needed to respond to changes?

In all of these reports, agency representatives emphasized the need to: 1.Ensure that hunters were prepared to hunt in grizzly country, and if education doesn’t work, to certify that hunters were qualified; 2. Remove dead game promptly and improve handling of livestock carcasses, and 3. Carry bear spray. Over two-thirds of the recommendations of the 2004 and 2009 reports were centered on these overall themes.

As grizzly bear numbers dropped during the 1970’s and concerns over the bear’s fate mounted, binding regulations were adopted pertaining to storing food. In 1991, the agencies seriously considered more mandatory restrictions, especially for hunter practices. Each time when the government revisited the issue of adopting new rules (including hunter certification), it rejected them for fear of alienating conservative, politically well-connected hunters and ranchers.

Even though agency officials say that “hunters are behaving better” because of their education/outreach work (link), their own data do not support this contention.  Hunter-caused mortalities have dramatically increased at the same time that the size of the grizzly bear population has plateaued since 2002, and hunter numbers have actually declined–by over 40% (link).

Government data also show that as key foods such as whitebark pine and cutthroat trout have collapsed, bears—including females– are turning more to eating meat (link). And the bears seem to be aggressive because they have few high–calorie options. As many hunters well know, grizzlies are learning that gunshots are dinner bells, sounding the serving of dead meat.

This year, berries, a key fall-back Yellowstone bear food, also tanked throughout the ecosystem, exacerbating grizzly bears’ scramble for food. Climate projections show that the future of berries in the ecosystem is bleak. Elk are also expected to further decline in response to a climate-driven deterioration in forage conditions (link), as well as because of the resistance of states to lowering hunt quotas.

Conflicts over cows and increasingly scarce elk will likely worsen.  Hunters and ranchers will be in the thick of these conflicts, and education, alone, does not appear to be the answer.

Requiring that hunters not leave a dead elk on the ground overnight (with any hope of owning it in the morning) should be considered. Hunters on Alaska’s Kodiak Island kill deer early in the day to avoid conflicts with the island’s huge brown bears.

Requiring hunters and public land users to carry bear spray also makes sense, just like wearing a seat belt does. Bear spray is not brains in a can, but it works pretty darn well (link). The agencies have the authority to take this step that is about safety of both bears and people. Grand Teton Park and Montana’s Bureau of Land Management Dillon District are showing the way, requiring hunters (GTNP) and outfitters (BLM) to carry bear spray. The Forest Service and states need to step up. People would not be wearing seat belts as much as they are now were it not for laws requiring it.

This is not rocket science. It is common sense born of a changing world.

Legalizing Poaching?

The 2009 conflict report included a Top Priority recommendation by all of the managers, plus the researchers (Forest Service, National Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, and the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana), that speaks volumes about how the agencies’ obsession with delisting colors their thinking about the problem of dead bears.

In several places they suggested a grizzly bear trophy hunt to reduce current levels of hunter-caused mortality. Wyoming Game & Fish led the charge, calling for: “a limited hunt as soon as possible that stressed that preventable mortalities reduce the huntable surplus of grizzly bears.”

Translation: hunters can be persuaded to stop killing bears illegally if they are allowed to kill bears legally. Assumption: poachers are to be placated, not arrested and prosecuted. Further, Wyoming (and it appears the other agencies) believe there is a “surplus” of bears to kill, despite their legal duty to protect them and the overwhelming scientific evidence showing they are still in deep trouble.

What is particularly disturbing is that unnecessary killing of a threatened grizzly bear is not seen by our government as a call for a compassionate, proactive response: it is seen as a constraint against the future opportunity to hunt an animal that will not even be eaten, but killed for personal gratification.

Idaho provides a hint about the nature of the agency “group think” that created this and other reports, saying that “trust” in the states, “support for bear management”, and tolerance for bears generally could be developed through hunting grizzly bears. This claim is illogical, not supported by the evidence and morally wrong.

There is no evidence to show that legalizing killing serves as a deterrent. While hunters have a track record of conserving big game for trophy and sustenance, they tend to see large carnivores in a more negative light, as competitors for big game. (The argument of “fewer wolves, more elk” is powerful, albeit scientifically unjustified).

Nonetheless, the states believe they can win support of hunters for large carnivores through hunting them. This has been refuted by research, most recently in a comprehensive study in the Midwest that showed that hunters’ attitudes towards wolves did not improve after hunting wolves became legal (see some original articles by Treves, Treves and others, and Mattson and Ruther).

Aside from the problems of logic and justification, there is the moral issue: by allowing people with guns to take the law into their own hands, the states are giving power to a lethal few at the expense of the nonlethal majority who flock to Yellowstone to witness bears living in a functioning ecosystem.

The idea that killing bears can buy agency support is anchored in the culture and identity of state wildlife systems themselves. In the northern Rockies, state game agencies see their core base as license-paying hunters and fishers, not the broader public who watch wildlife and constitute the base of support for Yellowstone grizzly bears (link). Thus, in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, wildlife management policy is fundamentally not about conservation or empathy, it is a negotiation with hunters about how much killing can occur, and under what auspices.

All the other managers, even those in the Fish and Wildlife Service who are entrusted with the higher charge of recovering endangered species on behalf of all citizens (not just hunters), strongly support hunting grizzly bears — even while they are protected under the Endangered Species Act! What does that suggest will happen after delisting, when restrictions on killing bears are further loosened?

What will likely happen after Delisting?

Life for grizzly bears will likely get a lot worse. More conflicts will end up with dead bears, and states will rapidly institute trophy hunting that will almost certainly become more liberal over time (link). (Witness what has happened with wolves.) Further, the state systems have no brakes, and their post-delisting plans lack legally binding limits to human-caused mortality.

Even the Fish and Wildlife Service has admitted that the primary post-delisting management plan, the Conservation Strategy, cannot actually regulate anything. And this agency has fiercely resisted any mechanism to relist bears if the population crashes in the face of excessive killing allowed by the states. The Fish and Wildlife Service has made it clear that its delisting agenda is all about placating the states, which are all about appeasing hunters, and yes, even poachers.

But wait: where does the broader public interest come in? And, what about science, which supposedly is what the Endangered Species Act is about? Science warns us of trouble facing bears, and suggests some ways to tackle current problems.

And what about basic common sense? Is our government at all levels so blinded by ideology that wildlife managers are unwilling to take even the most basic steps, like requiring hunters to carry bears spray?

Finally, what about compassion for a magnificent animal that has been relegated to the last 1% of habitat left in the lower-48 due to human intolerance? Do we have to respond to conflicts with guns, when nonlethal alternatives are available and are proven to work?

All who are concerned about the fate of grizzly bears should be deeply worried about delisting, and more broadly, the functioning of wildlife managing agencies and our system of government. In the end, the debate about delisting is about the relationship we choose with an animal that epitomizes the wildest nature we have left, and whether we want that connection to be characterized by dominance and violence, or coexistence and reverence.

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Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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