When the state of Wyoming proposed a new grizzly bear hunt in March, the first in the lower 48 states in more than four decades, the timing was especially jarring for those of us who work hard to conserve the species. The state should have waited at least until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces whether it will reverse its 2017 decision to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which stretches across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The population in the lower 48 states once numbered around 50,000. That number is now down to about 1,500 grizzlies. Restoring them to their historic habitat is vital for the Yellowstone region, which has seen fewer migratory birds and an explosion in the moose population in areas where grizzlies historically roamed but are now absent.
Even though record numbers of Yellowstone-area grizzly bears have died over the past three years, Wyoming now proposes to allow the killing of 24 of the region’s approximately 700 grizzlies, including two females (although it remains unclear how hunters will differentiate in real time at a shooting distance). If state wildlife managers think the best way to help grizzlies – or any other endangered species – is through lethal attrition, the species has a bleak future in the United States.
Among many other reasons not to go forward with this plan, the state should consider that grizzly protection would have greater economic benefits than hunting. A new University of Wyoming study found that wildlife watchers spent just short of $365 million in the state in 2016, nearly twice the $206 million spent by big game hunters that year.
Grizzly bears are held sacred by several Native American tribes, whose leaders tell me wildlife officials often set bear conservation policy without consulting them. Last year I introduced the “Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act,” which would ensure permanent protection for grizzly bears and guarantee tribes a role in managing the species. Despite widespread support in Indian Country, Republican leaders have not held a hearing on this or any other conservation-minded proposal.
The laws surrounding grizzly conservation need updating not just to reflect tribal input, but to ensure our federal agencies keep up with the best available science. For several years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has attempted to designate certain sub-groups of endangered species – what it calls “distinct population segments” – as no longer needing legal protection. The short version is this: Even if the overall U.S. population of an animal clearly needs ESA protection and meets the legal definition of endangered status, the agency may believe that a particular local group is thriving enough to remove protections in a specific area.
FWS used this approach last year when it removed so-called “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears” from the Endangered Species List – a move that opened the door to Wyoming’s recent hunting season announcement. The FWS decision resulted in five separate lawsuits, which a judge in Montana has consolidated, challenging everything from the questionable legality of the “distinct population segment” approach to the administration’s lack of tribal consultation. That case is ongoing.
If Trump officials follow the law, the upcoming FWS announcement should be a slam dunk for conservationists. The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the “distinct population segment” approach to species conservation in August 2017 when a judge found that FWS erred in delisting the so-called “Great Lakes gray wolf” – a description that has no biological or regulatory meaning. The upshot of the ruling is that, as conservationists argued all along, FWS must protect an entire species, not pick and choose. The ruling underscores the legal weakness of FWS’ decision to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone-area grizzlies.
If the agency announces that it will continue to rely on its flawed methodology and leave Yellowstone-area grizzlies unprotected, the fate of many American bears will hang by a thread.
The public has responded with outrage to the trophy hunting deaths of African species. Killing grizzly bears is ultimately no different, and it’s worth noting that we don’t hunt other animals of great spiritual and religious importance. We don’t shoot bald eagles, for instance – not because of any excess of political correctness, but because Congress decided they are too important to our shared culture and history to kill for fun.
When it comes to protecting American wildlife, especially endangered species, our policies should be about ensuring their survival, not maximizing our ability to kill them. We’ll find out soon whether the Trump administration agrees.