The Wyoming Game and Fish Department just authorized a plan to open a grizzly bear hunting season this September.
Not so fast.
A federal judge in Missoula could place the Yellowstone grizzly population back under Endangered Species Act protection before then, with a hearing on several lawsuits (full disclosure: including one by Western Watersheds Project and Alliance for the Wild Rockies) set for Aug. 30.
The commissioners’ premature decision to approve the killing of 22 grizzly bears in this year’s hunt is symptomatic of a Game and Fish Department strangled for funds by a Wyoming Legislature that — let’s face it — is pretty anti-wildlife. Wyoming Game and Fish focuses almost all of its money and personnel on a few dozen game species, with a handful of nongame biologists mixed in to represent conservation of all of the rest of our native wildlife.
Bureaucrats and politicians are already peddling misrepresentations about an imaginary need to “manage” grizzly bear numbers, lest they become overpopulated. But with 7.6 billion humans on this planet, who are we to say that some other species is overpopulated?
The harsh reality is that grizzly bears self-regulate their own populations naturally through territorial control. Young bears must run the gantlet of occupied territories to find a vacant home range of their own, and those that don’t succeed, die. The No. 1 cause of grizzly death is being killed by another grizzly. Superimposing shooting deaths on this natural system serves no biological purpose at all, and calling it “wildlife management” is an insult to legitimate wildlife scientists.
The real impetus to fast-track a grizzly hunt is that of selling grizzly hunting resident tags for $600 and nonresident tags for $6,000, a financial windfall for the department that might help to ease budget constraints that are chronically tight. This perennial funding crisis is what leads Wyoming Game and Fish to view native wildlife as commodities, to be “harvested” like a crop to yield revenue streams for the agency.
Sure, one could argue that the Game and Fish is funded primarily by hunters and anglers and works primarily for their benefit, so we shouldn’t complain too loudly. But there are better models. In Missouri, one tenth of one cent of sales tax goes directly to their Department of Conservation, without ever passing through the Legislature to provide opportunities for political extortion and manipulation. The Missouri system provides ample funding for a robust conservation program that includes all species, hunted and nongame, and takes politics out of the mix and allows professional biologists to make decisions based on sound science, not political pandering. Instead, the Wyoming model of relying on the Legislature and license fees leads to broader problems for the state and our wildlife.
The department can sell hard-to-get trophy tags to wealthy Safari Club tycoons so they can add a bearskin rug to the taxidermied menagerie of disembodied heads in their drawing rooms. While killing these majestic and iconic creatures might offer a little sport for a privileged few, in the long run it fuels a wave of anti-hunting sentiment that also affects people who hunt to feed their families. Is a grizzly hunt really worth the black eye that hunters stand to take as a group, and the sullying of Wyoming’s reputation as a tourist destination?
From a scientific perspective, the only defensible “management” strategy is to leave the bears alone. The original recovery plan required grizzlies to become established in the Selway-Bitterroot area, offering hope of restoring connections to the isolated Yellowstone bear population over the long term to allow genetic interchange. That’s still biologically necessary, but instead of living up to that commitment the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chose to create a new ‘Distinct Population Segment’ in Yellowstone for the purpose of delisting it, giving itself a chance to move the recovery goalposts to suit the political whims of the day.
Both federal and state agencies are disgracing themselves in their premature victory celebrations, but the serious conservationists are beavering away to protect the grizzlies in spite of them. But even if the delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzlies is overturned in federal court, the issue of appropriate grizzly management does not go away. Wyoming would do well to rub the dollar signs from its eyes and develop a sound, science-based approach to recovering these majestic predators throughout their range, one that features grizzly recovery rather than hunting as the primary consideration.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project, a conservation nonprofit working to protect watersheds and wildlife in the West.