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Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears

During the second week of March, Wyoming wildlife managers released what they called “draft” plans and regulations for trophy hunting grizzly bears. A map delineating hunting areas was released shortly after, on March 12th. These formal releases were accompanied by a Public Relations push, most notably a lengthy interview with Brian Nesvik, Wyoming’s Chief Game Warden, by the Casper Star Tribune. This interview would lead an uncritical reader to conclude that Wyoming was being procedural, reasonable, and cautious in its approach to hunting grizzly bears—that Wyoming was launched on the path of sustainable prudent management. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Nesvik’s interview and every other instance of public communications by Wyoming Game and Fish are classic propaganda.

Without plumbing the excruciating depths of relevant detail, the following is a thumbnail description of what Wyoming’s state managers are actually planning to do and why their plans are a big problem for both Yellowstone’s grizzly bears and the people who care about them.

Some Background

Let’s start with the basics. A formula was developed by the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho in consultation with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) for determining the number of grizzly bears that could die or otherwise be killed each year with the goal of not letting the population grow any larger. This formula is contained within a non-binding Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) adopted by the three involved states. Notably, the formula applies only to what is being called the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA). The DMA constitutes the bounds within which the Yellowstone grizzly bear population will be monitored with, at least for the next five years, the States accountable to the FWS for not driving the current population of around 700 bears below 500.

Outside the DMA, all bets are off. None of the states are accountable to anyone but their wildlife Commissions which, in Wyoming and Idaho, have expressed unmitigated hostility towards large predators such as grizzlies. Moreover, inside the DMA, the formula for calculating allowable total mortality expressly increases mortality rates to decrease size of the population if it is estimated to be larger than 675. Of relevance, last year’s estimate for the population within the DMA was 718.

The Goal of Population Reduction

So, the first big problem is that the mortality rates applied this year to calculate allowable mortality are designed to reduce the population of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Even taking the logic of the States’ formula at face value, the goal is notsustainability, but rather diminishment. Rather than what the formula would purport to be sustainable annual mortality rates of 7.6% for autonomous females and 15% for autonomous males (>2 years of age), the rates applied this year are 9% and 20% for females and males, respectively. Given the very slow reproductive rates of grizzly bears, these differences are non-trivial.

Aside from noting the MOA’s perverse goal, I will not address here the many fundamental problems that compromise the plans contained within, other than to note that, even adopting the goal of sustainability, there is a fundamental illogic in assuming, as the MOA does, that you can kill roughly twice as many males as females when both sexes are born at equal rates. Even adopting the MOA formula, an unsustainable slaughter of males is virtually guaranteed.

Apportioning Deaths

Sometime during February, state wildlife managers cranked the formula to determine how many of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears could or should die. This total was around 90. Of this total, Wyoming laid claim to 58% (53 deaths) based on the fact that, outside of National Park jurisdictions and Indian Reservations, Wyoming contains 58% of the Yellowstone ecosystem DMA.

But, of these 53 allowable deaths, many are expected to occur for “non-discretionary” reasons, including natural causes, poaching, collisions with vehicles, and immediate defense of life (mostly hunters surprising grizzlies) and property (notably cows and sheep). Historically, such deaths accounted for 60-70% of the total. The remainder are considered by state managers to be “discretionary” and include reasons such as trophy hunting and removals by managers after due deliberation. Importantly, allowable mortality also includes bear deaths that managers don’t know about, which are estimated at year’s end by applying various cause-specific adjustment factors. Historically, these unknown deaths amounted to around 35-40% of the year-end total.

In theory, then, a prudent manager would minimally first allow for foreseeable unknown and “non-discretionary” deaths before determining how many grizzlies would be plausibly available for rich white guys with guns to kill for fun—i.e., “sport hunt.” Following this logic, Wyoming’s share of total females and males that could die, at least according to the MOA formula, is reduced from 29 males and 13 females to 3 females and 8 males. But these numbers are the total for all “discretionary” mortality, which includes pre-hunting-season management removals. A prudent manager would therefore further reduce the planned number available for trophy hunting inside the DMA by perhaps half again more—to around 1-2 females and 4 males.

Wyoming’s Plans

And what are Wyoming’s current plans for trophy hunting, presented under the veneer of sustainable management?—to offer up as many as 2 females and 10 males to trophy hunters within the DMA during a fall season that begins on September 1st.  This planned toll constitutes near 2-times as many as would be prudent, even given the adopted MOA goal of reducing the bear population. Taking a slightly different tack that more reasonably allocates the allowable death toll to various States on the basis of currently occupied habitat within non-Park portions of the DMA, Wyoming’s prudent portion available for trophy hunting would be roughly 1 female and 3 males. By this reckoning, Wyoming is planning on offering licenses sufficient to kill 200-300% of these numbers. Even at face value, this is not sustainable. Wyoming’s portion of the DMA is best called the Reduction Zone.

And then there are Wyoming’s plans for trophy hunting outside the DMA. Making the generous (but dubious) assumption that grizzly bear densities are the same inside and outside the DMA, this peripheral zone contains around 90-100 bears. Applying the MOA’s prescribed  mortality rates, this number translates into a total allowable mortality of 3 females and 7 males which, when accounting for all of the factors described above, ends up being roughly ½ of a female and 1 male prudently available for trophy hunting. And, yet, Wyoming plans on allowing hunters to kill 12 bears here, in what they are designating Hunt Unit 7—roughly 1000% of what might be considered even remotely sustainable. It is not too much of a stretch to call Hunt Unit 7 the Slaughter Zone, which is consistent with previous statements made by Wyoming’s wildlife managers in the media and in the Grizzly Bear Management Plan they adopted during 2016.

A Spatial Perspective

The maps immediately below provide a spatial perspective for all of this. The first of the two maps (Map 1), shows the area occupied by grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem during 2010 and 2016 (as two shades of green) overlain by the DMA Hunt Areas (in orange) and Hunt Area 7 (red)—the Reduction Zone and Slaughter Zone. I’ve also identified areas in the Slaughter Zone occupied by grizzlies during 2016 where genocide efforts will be concentrated, most notably in the Wyoming range to the south and along the Absaroka Front to the east.

Map 1. The Yellowstone ecosystem with distributions of grizzlies during 2010 and 2016 shown in two shades of green, the DMA hunt units shown in orange, and the Slaughter Zone (Unit 7) shown in red. Occupied areas within which grizzlies are likely to be eradicated as shown in the south (the Wyoming Range) and east (the Absaroka Front).

To provide context for the extent to which Yellowstone’s grizzly bears will be exposed to the onslaught of Wyoming’s state managers, 11% of the population’s total distribution is contained within the Slaughter Zone and 31% within the Reduction Zone. Considering only the state of Wyoming, these numbers bump up to 17% and 47%, respectively. The point being that excesses planned by Wyoming’s wildlife managers will afflict a large portion of the total population. The only factors that mitigate this bleak situation are Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, where state managers are thankfully excluded, as well as a small no-hunt buffer immediately east of Grand Teton NP and Jackson, Wyoming, set aside by wildlife managers as a sop to this bubble of liberals and liberalism.

Map 2 provides a larger and highly relevant regional perspective encompassing the entire northern US Rocky Mountains as far north as Canada and as far south as northern Utah. The dark brown denotes both occupied and unoccupied habitat modeled as being suitable for grizzly bears by several researchers working independently of each other. The tan squiggles denote routes that potentially support grizzlies dispersing among ecosystems. The FWS’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Areas are also shown, which continue to be relevant for grizzly bears farther north, as well as historically relevant for grizzly bears in Yellowstone. Finally, as in Map 1, I’ve shown Wyoming’s Reduction and Slaughter Zones (DMA hunt units plus Hunt Unit 7), together with an additional area, Hunt Unit 8, where hunting of grizzlies will apparently not occur for lack of resident bears.

Map 2. Distribution of potential suitable habitat for grizzly bears (dark brown) in the northern US Rocky Mountains, as well as overlap of this potential with the Reduction Zone (DMA hunt units; in dark orange) and the Slaughter Zone (Unit 7; in red). Potential dispersal routes for colonizing grizzlies are shown in tan.

This map has several implications for achieving a more robust vision of recovery for grizzly bears in the contiguous United States. Current grizzly populations amount to no more than 2-3% of what we once had during the early 1800s. Yet efforts to identify potential suitable habitat have shown that we could have a lot more grizzlies in a lot more places given the amounts of productive remote habitat still in existence. The brown in Map 2 shows the ample potential habitat contiguous to or near areas currently occupied by grizzlies, with areas where this potential overlaps the Reduction and Slaughter Zones shown as dark orange and red, respectively.  And we need additional grizzlies because our current populations are still acutely vulnerable to a rapidly changing world simply because of comparatively small sizes. Populations of even 700-900 bears, as we have around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, are not near the 6000-8000 needed for long-term viability.

Trust Wyoming?

So, how does Wyoming’s plans to slaughter bears fit into a more generous vision of recovery? Not very well. The Slaughter Zone will extinguish any chance of grizzlies colonizing potential suitable habitat in the Uinta Mountains of Utah and the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. Moreover, excessive killing inside the Reduction Zone will almost certainly increase risks for a population that is already vulnerable to on-going losses of natural foods and resulting dietary shifts.

If nothing else, Wyoming’s state wildlife managers have proven in their plans for hunting grizzlies something about their motivations and tactics. They have no real interest in sustaining Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population, much less promoting true recovery. As they would probably freely confess, their primary interest is in serving grizzly bears up on the altar of trophy hunters seeking affirmation of a frail ego by putting lead slugs fired from high-powered rifles into unsuspecting bears. Wyoming’s managers have also shown they are more than willing to baffle the public with Bull Shit in furtherance of an agenda they realize would not stand close scrutiny. All of which puts the lie to frequent admonitions by those in power that we should trust state wildlife managers. Like Hell.

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David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago. 

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