At the same time when families are flocking to Yellowstone Park to see grizzly bears in the wild, Wyoming officials are moving ahead with a September trophy hunt of grizzlies — the first in 44 years — that will potentially target bears roaming across the boundary of our nation’s oldest park.
The record numbers of people visiting Yellowstone could not be expected to know that, in fact, Wyoming officials have aggressively moved to shrink the population and even extirpate grizzlies in certain places within months of when bears lost Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections.
One man who vigorously opposed Wyoming’s plans was Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk, who was recently ousted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke because of his progressive views on managing wildlife. Wenk’s views on grizzlies were backed by some of the world’s most renowned scientists, including Drs. Jane Goodall, George Schaller and E.O. Wilson, who argue that the Yellowstone population, comprising perhaps just 1 percent of grizzly bears that once roamed the West, is still far too small and isolated to be considered recovered.
Wenk’s opposition to Wyoming’s hunt is about more than the fate of Yellowstone’s bruins. At issue is a contest of worldviews, one defined by empathy and compassion, and another defined by domination and use. Largely funded by hunters and fishers, wildlife management in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho is essentially defined in terms of how many animals can be ‘harvested’.
Differences in how state and Park Service managers view bears living near roads encapsulate the divide between these worldviews. For decades, park officials have allowed grizzly bears to frequent roadsides that wind through Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks. This habitat provides a vital niche for females looking to protect cubs from aggressive male bears that tend to hang back from roads. The Parks’ roadside bears have proven to be very tolerant of people, and the public has responded with delight.
In contrast, state managers, especially in Wyoming, are increasingly threatened by deepening public intimacy with wildlife and have stated they do not support “the roadside bear situation.” Although roadside grizzlies are still being protected inside Parks, elsewhere they will be acutely vulnerable to hunting, barring in a small no-hunt zone east of the Grant Tetons.
Perhaps unconsciously, Park Service officials have been tapping into a shift in attitudes that has been long underway. More and more, people are recognizing that animals have feelings — joy, pain, jealousy — just like we do. The idea of inflicting pain or hunting animals for personal gratification, not food, is being questioned as never before.
As evidence, over 99 percent of the comments submitted to the federal government on its 2016 draft rule to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone grizzlies opposed its plan. In fact, in over a dozen public processes over the last two decades, Americans have overwhelmingly opposed sport hunting and advocated for stronger safeguards for grizzlies.
Now, without federal protections, Americans who live outside the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have no say in how Yellowstone’s grizzlies are managed beyond National Park boundaries. Yet these bears belong to all of us, not a minority of mostly white male trophy hunters.
Without the ESA, science matters far less in management. Yet scientists are increasingly concerned about threats to Yellowstone grizzlies from burgeoning human populations and skyrocketing deaths caused by shifts in bear diets driven by climate warming and invasive species. Bruins are now eating more meat, especially from livestock and gut piles, which has escalated conflicts with big game hunters and ranchers. These conflicts can be resolved, whereas a hunt will only make matters worse.
The fate of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears is now in the hands of Federal Judge Dana Christensen, who holds a hearing on the matter in Missoula on August 30 — two days before Wyoming’s hunt of as many as 22 grizzlies is slated to start. He is faced with a decision that is about more than whether grizzlies will be hunted. He will, in reality, be rendering a verdict on which worldview should shape conservation of grizzlies in one of its last refuges.