POWELL — The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has decided not to try superseding the Endangered Species Act and federal regulations and enact a hunting season on grizzly bears. But commissioners’ frustration is at a boiling point.
Last week, the commission considered a recent bill by the Wyoming Legislature that, at least in theory, gave the panel the authority to pass a hunting season despite a September ruling that reinstated federal protections for the Yellowstone area’s grizzly bears.
In response to the legislation, three questions were posed at the Game and Fish Commission’s Wednesday meeting in Riverton: Does the current population of grizzlies, especially those expanding outside the boundaries of suitable habitat called the demographic monitoring area (DMA), pose a threat to human safety? Is the current population having a negative impact on the state’s other wildlife populations? And, finally, should the commission begin the process to authorize a hunting season?
The votes on the first two questions were unanimous: grizzlies pose a threat to human safety both inside and outside of the DMA and have a negative impact on other wildlife populations, commissioners agreed.
However, they also voted unanimously to hold off on a hunt.
Their main concern was that hunters could face federal prosecution if they harvested a grizzly in a state-sanctioned hunt.
“We would throw our citizens into an untenable situation, which I don’t feel comfortable doing as a commissioner,” said commissioner Pat Crank, of Cheyenne.
Still, Commission President David Rael of Cowley compared a Wyoming grizzly hunt to other states legalizing marijuana in spite of federal legislation prohibiting its sale and use.
“Why is it states can vote to grow pot when the federal government recognizes it as illegal — a felony,” Rael asked rhetorically.
Part of the frustration stems from the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — under both the Obama and Trump administrations — has deemed the Yellowstone area’s grizzly bears to be recovered on two different occasions over the past 12 years. Both times, however, a federal judge overruled the agency and reinstated Endangered Species Act protections; U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen blocked planned hunts in Wyoming and Idaho last year, saying Fish and Wildlife acted improperly.
“Things that are being argued about now are not whether [grizzlies] are biologically recovered; it’s whether it can be demonstrated in a court of law,” said Dan Thompson, Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore program supervisor.
There have been mixed emotions in response to last year’s judicial ruling, with the decision being celebrated by many across the country who oppose any hunting of grizzlies. However, there is more support for hunts inside bear territory — and particularly in counties experiencing increased conflicts due to the grizzly’s expanding range.
“We’re seeing tolerance waning,” Thompson said. “We’ve crossed the finish line twice and seen it taken away. There’s a very heavily shared frustration.”
Wyoming is a member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which provides an ecosystem-level approach to management and conservation of the species. The team also includes Montana, Idaho, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Wind River Reservation.
“We have the bulk of the bears in Wyoming, so quite honestly we do the bulk of the work,” Thompson said, but it is a collaborative process.
“Especially with an animal like the grizzly bear, you need collaboration for it to be a success,” he said.
Wyoming has spent over $16 million on monitoring, conservation and conflict management in the past decade, Thompson said, with a large portion of the budget spent on damage mitigation.
“My frustration is that we — the people that pay for licenses in the state — are in fact the ones carrying the burden,” said vice president Peter Dube of Buffalo. “We need to let the federal government and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know we’re not happy. They make a lot of demands on us. … We are not compensated near enough to cover these costs. It may never end.”
The Game and Fish provides roughly 94 percent of the funding for the department’s grizzly programs. Funding from the federal government and various entities — including the state’s Animal Damage Management Board and nongovernmental organizations like the Western Bear Alliance, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wyoming Outdoorsmen and Wyoming Bowhunters — provide the other 6 or so percent. Thompson said the idea “that without money from the federal government, we couldn’t hold our heads above water” is a myth he’d like to dispel.
While important, Thompson said the federal government contributes only about $100,000 per year toward grizzly management.
“And yet they [federal authorities] carry jurisdiction over the bears?” asked Rael, knowing the answer to his own question. “We [should] take that measly 100 grand from the feds and tell them to keep it and manage the bears ourselves from this point forward,” suggested Commissioner Mike Schmid, of LaBarge.
The Game and Fish no longer receives general funds from the state, so no public taxes are used to support the agency; hunters’ and anglers’ tags, licenses and fees fund more than 85 percent of the Game and Fish budget.
“Sportsmen and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department have returned grizzly bears from the brink of extinction to where they are recovered and we still don’t get to manage them,” said Crank.
After hitting a low of around 136 bears, there are currently more than 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — not counting an expanding population outside the DMA. Thompson’s team is working on more accurate counting methods to help reveal the true number of bears in the ecosystem — and the concern of bears expanding into residential areas, like Byron, is extremely high.
“The Endangered Species Act is wonderful at recovering an animal, or a population. It serves its purpose very well,” Thompson said. “But it does not work well to manage an already recovered population.”
Despite the growing frustration, commissioners warned not to take it out on grizzlies.
“We’re not denigrating the species. We think they’re magnificent,” Dube said. “We will bear the burden — we’re not going to stop that — but it doesn’t mean we can’t be frustrated with the process.”