CHEYENNE — The state of Wyoming is moving to take over management of grizzly bears as environmental groups increasingly scrutinize whether the bear population in the Greater Yellowstone region could sustain hunting.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission held its first public hearing Wednesday outlining how the state will manage grizzly bears when they come off the federal endangered species list. It plans to hold other meetings around the state.
The federal government announced in early March that it intends to lift threatened-species protections for grizzlies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The decision could lead to bear hunting in the three states for the first time since the 1970s. There are an estimated 700 to 1,000 grizzly bears in the three states.
State officials have responded enthusiastically to the federal delisting announcement, but several environmental groups have said they don’t believe the Greater Yellowstone bear population can sustain hunting pressure and won’t be protected adequately without federal oversight.
The grizzly delisting decision could be setting the stage for another legal battle pitting environmental groups against state and federal agencies. Environmental groups have been pressing legal challenges for years over the federal government’s push to turn management of Wyoming wolves over to the state.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in Washington, D.C., has sided with environmental groups that challenged a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase the future number of grizzlies that elk hunters at Grand Teton National Park could kill if necessary in self-defense. The judge rejected an overall challenge to elk hunting there.
Contreras ruled Tuesday that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to document its decision to allow hunters to kill four grizzly bears over the next six years or so if necessary during the elk hunts at Grand Teton. The agency was compelled to consider increasing the number of bears it would allow to be killed there after hunters in 2012 killed a bear that confronted them.
Contreras stated in his ruling that he believes the agency would be able to substantiate its decision to allow the extra bears to be killed.
An attempt to reach a spokeswoman at Grand Teton was not immediately successful. Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael, whose office intervened in the suit, declined comment.
Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso in Montana represented the Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project and Center for Biological Diversity in challenging the agency action.
Preso said Wednesday that grizzly bear mortality has been increasing in recent years as white bark pine trees have produced fewer seeds, forcing bears to range farther in search of meat and putting them in conflict with ranchers and hunters.
Preso said he expects environmental groups will assess the federal grizzly delisting proposal carefully and comment on it.
If grizzlies are delisted, each state must have a bear management plan that addresses such things as monitoring bear populations and enforcing wildlife laws. In addition, the three states have a separate proposed plan to coordinate their management of the bears.
Wyoming’s proposed plan provides the framework and guidance on how the state will sustain a recovered population of grizzly bears, state Wildlife Chief Brian Nesvik said during Wednesday’s meeting in Casper. He said the state hopes delisting could occur by the end of this year.
Grizzly bears inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and on the Wind River Indian Reservation would not be subject to state management.
Wyoming’s plan notes that regulated hunting of grizzly bears may be an option for controlling their numbers. It would be up to the state Game and Fish Commission to approve the use of hunting and establish regulations, such as limits and seasons, through a separate process, according to Game and Fish spokesman Renny MacKay.