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Biologists: Grizzly numbers hold steady around Yellowstone

A grizzly bear cub forages for food in 2013 near the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana. Activists that oppose the grizzly bear hunt set to start this fall are applying for grizzly hunting tags with no intention of shooting the bears, in an effort to prevent any grizzlies from being hunted. 

JACKSON — A number of Jackson Hole animal lovers are trying to rally like-minded folks to apply for grizzly bear hunting tags with no intention of shooting the big bruins.

The maneuver amounts to a form of legal protest against the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s planned grizzly bear hunt, slated to start this fall for the first time in 44 years. Spring Gulch resident and wildlife activist Lisa Robertson plans to apply for the hunt, and, if selected, she will carry a camera rather than a firearm.

“It’ll give us 10 extra days of a living grizzly,” Robertson said. “We’re all entitled to be represented out here, and this is one way that the nonconsumptive public can say, ‘We’ll pay you to not kill this grizzly — at least for 10 days.’

“We should be involved in this process, and at this point this is how we can be involved,” she said. “It’s legitimate. It’s legal.”

Wyoming’s hunt is structured in a way that allows the possibility of disruption by nonhunters. Across most of the Yellowstone region’s interior, just one hunter will be allowed in the field at a time in a season that starts Sept. 15. The rules are designed to prevent two female bears from being killed, which would exceed a cap imposed by an agreement with Idaho and Montana.

When plans for the season were still in draft form this spring, outfitters complained about the potential of a nonhunter securing and not using one of the licenses that are sure to be coveted in the hunting community. Game and Fish officials heard the concerns and changed their plans, instating a 10-day limit per hunter and requiring people to procure a hunter-education certificate before they can purchase a license.

Under Wyoming statute, the safety certificate is not required of people born before Jan. 1, 1966.

An additional deterrent that hopeful grizzly hunting saboteurs face is the cost: If selected for one of the state’s 22 tags, residents must pony up $600 and nonresidents $6,000.

As long as the requirements are met, there’s nothing illegal about applying with no intention of hunting, Game and Fish Carnivore Supervisor Dan Thompson said.

“That’s their prerogative,” he said. “Honestly, like I’ve said throughout the course of this, I wish it could be viewed not as sabotaging the hunt but as contributing to grizzly bear conservation and management.”

But Thompson isn’t encouraging nonhunters to apply.

“It’s not something we’re condoning, people putting in just so they can take a tag from someone who is interested in the hunting opportunity,” he said. “But it’s going to happen. I know it’s going to happen.”

A number of friends and fellow activists Robertson has reached out to are weighing going through the application process, among other forms of protest.

Longtime Jackson resident Ann Smith said she’s leaning toward applying for the hunt but has not yet decided.

“I probably will,” Smith said. “We have to speak out, is my point. I’m fighting this by raising the money, $82,000, for Earthjustice.”

Earthjustice is the San Francisco-based environmental law firm that represents a coalition of tribal and conservation groups in the effort to keep Yellowstone grizzlies protected under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed the ecosystem’s isolated population of about 700 grizzlies recovered in 2017 and turned over management to the states. Montana wildlife officials opted not to hunt grizzlies in 2018, but Wyoming and Idaho both approved seasons.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, who’s presiding over the grizzly case, has scheduled a hearing between the government, its intervenors and opponents for late August, days before Wyoming’s hunt is set to start.

At least one avid Jackson Hole hunter is also thinking of applying for the grizzly hunt, but with no intention of putting bear meat in the freezer.

Outdoor writer Ted Kerasote, a longtime staff editor for the hunting magazine Sports Afield, is considering entering the lottery in protest. His view is that Wyoming is jumping the gun, and he’s particularly displeased with Game and Fish rules that allow hunters to kill grizzlies without using the meat. Wanton-waste rules that apply to big-game species like elk and deer penalize leaving meat in the field, but no such rules exist for trophy-game species like bears or mountain lions.

Kerasote pointed out that nonhunters could individually affect the hunt by actually hunting.

“If the people who are opposed to the hunt want to be the most effective and be utilitarian about this, go out and shoot a female bear right away,” Kerasote said. “That would save the lives of at least 10 male bears in the [demographic monitoring area]. I know that’s a very harsh way of looking at things.”

Game and Fish’s grizzly bear hunting lottery is open between July 2 and 16. The cost to apply is $5 for residents and $15 for nonresidents.

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