Sometime next spring, grizzlies will do what they’ve done for eons: Emerge from their dens, groggy and hungry and ready to face another year as the kings and queens of the Yellowstone ecosystem.
But this won’t be like other years. For the first time in decades, Wyoming is gearing up to allow grizzly bears to be hunted. Imagine what that means: Many of the bears that were the source of such awe and wonder for visitors in Yellowstone National Park this year could be shot down by a hunter’s bullet the next.
The prospect of a hunt is only the latest setback for Yellowstone’s famed grizzlies.
The Trump administration’s decision in June to end Endangered Species Act protection for Yellowstone grizzlies was an abomination in its own right. Grizzlies, which once roamed much of North America, exist in just 5 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 and the Yellowstone population has declined in the past two years from an estimated 757 bears in 2015 to 690 in 2017.
Wyoming, Idaho and Montana are now compounding the pain. Each state has noted intentions to declare open season on grizzlies that leave the protective confines of the parks, allowing trophy hunters to kill these magnificent bears for heads to hang on walls, pelts to put on floors.
Wyoming wildlife officials kick off a series of public meetings this month to take public comment and begin deciding whether bears will be hunted and, if so, how many and during what months.
It’s disturbing that Wyoming is considering permitting grizzly bear hunting. These bears are among the most iconic grizzlies on the planet. Visitors come from around the world to see Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, clustering around spotting scopes and talking in hushed tones every time one passes in front of the lens.
Those people bring more than their curiosity. Towns all around Yellowstone, including Cody and Jackson, thrive from the tourist economy. Those who come to see bears, wolves and geysers spend millions on hotels, groceries, restaurants and shops. It’s been clear for a long time that bears are worth more alive than dead – that’s why last year the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce’s board unanimously voiced their opposition to hunting grizzlies near Jackson Hole.
While there is no good time of year to hunt grizzlies, springtime hunts are especially cruel. That’s when bears, just out of hibernation, are most vulnerable. And even though killing a mother grizzly with her cubs would be prohibited, it’s not hard to imagine an unintentional killing of a sow, which would leave cubs orphaned at the most critical time in their lives.
Grizzly bears do occasionally get into conflicts with people or livestock, but we’ve come a long way in terms of finding ways to minimize these conflicts and live with these amazing animals. Science tells us the important role grizzly bears play in regulating prey and diseases. Tribal leaders and anthropologists help reveal the deep cultural ties we have with grizzly bears. Logic says that a declining bear population shouldn’t be subjected to more killing less than a year after coming off the endangered species list.
And our hearts tell us that something so magnificent deserves better than to wake up after a long nap and be met by the cold, mortal indifference of a bullet from a gun.