Controversial Federal Court Ruling May Backfire on Grizzlies And Environmentalists

Grizzly Bear Hunting Ban Endangers Humans and Bears, Rangers Say

By Frank Miniter

June 7, 2019

Grizzly bears and humans don’t mix well. While many see hunting as one way to manage a booming grizzly population, many environmentalists favor protecting the species.

Late last summer US district Judge Dana Christensen ordered that grizzly bears living in the greater Yellowstone area be promptly returned to the Endangered Species List (ESA). She moved swiftly to stop Wyoming and Idaho from going forward with controlled hunts (one grizzly tag in Idaho and 22 in Wyoming).

“The threat of death to individual bears posed by the scheduled hunts is sufficient” to justify a delay in the state’s hunting seasons, Christensen wrote.

Much of the media heralded the ruling as a conservation success story.

The UK’s newspaper The Guardian even ran down Jane Goodall, the famed gorilla conservationist, for a quote: “We should not be killing any animals for fun. We should be celebrating grizzlies being alive not rushing to shoot them.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has a different take.

“If the Endangered Species Act isn’t allowed to work, if we aren’t allowed to delist a species after helping that species, in this case the grizzly bear, to far exceed set population and other goals,” said Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recgreater thany program coordinator for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, “then the Endangered Species Act will lose public support.”

The ESA, argues Cooley, needs its successes. Without success stories, local ranchers, owners of other businesses and local residents only see the ESA’s many restrictions and penalties.

In this case, hunters and hunter-conservation groups have done a lot to protect and to bring grizzly bear populations in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho back from near extinction in the Lower 48. People forget that it was actually ggreater thannment programs and bounties that exterminated species such as grizzlies, cougars and wolves from so much of their previous habitat during the first half of the 20 century.

Regulated hunting didn’t shrink the grizzly’s range in the Lower 48. Actually, one of the first people to publicly call for protections for these bears in the very early 20 century was Outdoor Life magazine’s founder J.A. McGuire.

Hunters, trappers, bounties and poisons extirpated grizzlies from Colorado, California (even though the iconic bear is still on the state flag) and more for decades after conservationists in hunting magazines began calling for protections for the bears.

More recently, sportsmen, gun owners in general (via taxes on their guns and ammo) and hunter-conservation groups have backed and paid for the grizzly bear’s preservation.

“The grizzly management plans we agreed to with Montana, Wyoming and Idaho,” says Cooley, “allow for a certain amount of bear mortality. Some are hit by cars. Some are killed in defense of life or are killed by authorities as they remove problem bears. If the states want to use hunting as a management tool that targets a specific number of bears that doesn’t exceed these agreed to mortality numbers, than that is fine with us.”

Cooley says that counting grizzlies only gives them estimates. The USFWS only counts bears in specific areas and then uses that data to calculate estimates of the bear’s population in a certain area. The USFWS thinks there were about 135 bears left in the Yellowstone management area when the bears first received Endangered status (just after the ESA was passed in 1973). Today, the USFWS says there are an estimated 712 in the Greater Yellowstone management area. They say there are also greater than 1,000 grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between Glacier National Park and Missoula, Mont.

Those numbers are minimum population estimates, says Cooley. “We know there are more bears than that; in fact, bear populations have been increasing by about two percent per year for a long time. Grizzlies have been so successful that the bears have been moving back onto the plains in Montana, which is bringing them into contact with many more people.”

Part of the reason Judge Christensen returned the grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area back to the ESA is because anti-hunting groups argued in court that the grizzlies greater range was once the entire Rocky Mountain West and the central plains, whereas in comparison, grizzlies today only occupy a small portion of that range.

With this historical observation being used as a rational to relist these bears, it then must be asked what would satisfy these groups. Grizzly bears are now increasingly living close to people outside of the mountains in the northern Rockies. Historically they ranged across many areas of the West that are now largely urbanized such as Denver and Los Angeles.

Today those living in bear country have made certain security adjustments. Garbage cans are secured and birdfeeders are usually removed. Some schools in Montana have put up fencing around playgrounds.

Earlier this year the author visited Montana with grizzly bear specialist Mike Madel of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The author was shown a barn where bears had broken into to feed on grain or to prey on livestock. He also offered a tour of where various locals were attacked by grizzlies near homes.

About a week before Judge Christensen stopped the hunt, on Sept. 14, 2018, an elk hunting guide was killed by a grizzly and his client was injured in Wyoming. Wyoming game managers quickly found and euthanized a grizzly and her cub after forensic analysis confirmed they were behind the attack.

“Despite the problems most local people like that the bears are here,” said Madel. “What they don’t like is when they can’t do anything about problem bears. That’s why people like me are here. A hunt would also help, as it would give local people some feeling of control and it can be used as a tool to manage bear populations that are near people. Hunting also instills a fear of man in bears.”
Madel uses his Karelian bear dog and other nonlethal means to deal with bears that are becoming too habituated to humans or that have become a threat to people or livestock. His last card to play is lethal management.

Cooley also emphasized that delisting the great Yellowstone area population of grizzlies, and at some point those in northwest Montana, is critical because it shows that the ESA can and does work. Many now oppose new ESA listings, as they know that once an animal or population is listed it will likely never be delisted, meaning the Private-land restrictions and more that come with the listing will effectively be permanent. That is a Major disincentive for Private landowners to have certain species found on their lands.

Judge Christensen’s ruling is under appeal in the 9 Circuit Court of Appeals.

It will likely take years for this litigation to be worked out. The USFWS has actually been trying to delist this population of grizzlies since 2007.

If bear populations somehow were to fall below population goals, Cooley says it would be easy to relist them. “We could even do so instantly with an emergency action,” says Cooley.