Up to 23 grizzly bears could be killed during this fall’s hunting season if Wyoming’s wildlife commission approves new draft regulations.
It would be the first grizzly bear hunting season since bears were placed on the endangered species list in 1975. Grizzly bear hunting has been long-awaited by those who believe their numbers are large enough and feared by others who say the bears are still at risk of being endangered.
While the quota states the most that could be killed by hunters are 24 bears, the specifics of the hunts are more nuanced, said Brian Nesvik, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s chief game warden.
A quota of 12 exists for what is called the demographic monitoring area, a chunk of Wyoming surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks that is considered suitable grizzly bear habitat. The monitoring area generally occupies the northwest corner of the state including the bulk of the Wind River Range. It also stretches into Montana and Idaho, though the proposed hunting regulations only apply to Wyoming.
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Another quota of 12 is set for bears in places that aren’t suitable grizzly bear habitat – such as corn fields on ranches in the plains – or in areas where they consistently cause conflict.
Licenses will be $6,000 for a nonresident and $600 for a resident. Six of the 24 licenses will go to nonresidents.
Wildlife officials estimate there were just over 700 grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in 2017. There isn’t an estimate for how many bears live outside the monitoring area near places like Lander or Powell.
“It provides for a very conservative hunting season using the quota that is pretty much prescribed by and calculated by a formula in the conservation strategy and tri-state memorandum,” Nesvik said. “It spits out a number and says we can’t take out any more than this number of females and this number of males.”
Within the monitoring area, up to two female and 10 male bears will be allowed to be killed. Licenses will be given on a lottery system, but only two licenses will be initially offered. As hunters kill bears, they will call into the department to report the gender of the bear. If two female bears are the first two killed, for example, the hunt will be over.
But because of the way licenses will be issued, only 11 bears could be killed in the monitoring area, not 12, as the quota states.
The female quota only applies within the monitoring area. The 12 bears allowed to be killed outside the area can be of either gender.
Hunters will also be required to complete an education course specifically about grizzly bear hunting, and will be given a satellite communication device to report their kill from the field. Bears will need to be brought into a Game and Fish office within five days to verify gender and collect other biological samples.
Grizzly bear hunting has been a source of great controversy throughout the West for more than a decade as the apex predator made its way on and off of the endangered species list.
After grizzlies were delisted in June, Montana decided not to hold a hunt in 2018. British Columbia chose in December to stop hunting grizzlies altogether.
Environmental groups say bear numbers cannot sustain any kind of hunting in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem because of challenges they face from changing food sources.
“Wyoming must demonstrate it can manage grizzly bears responsibly, not rush to begin a trophy hunt,” the Sierra Club wrote in a January news release. “The state’s jump to allow Greater Yellowstone’s treasured grizzlies to be killed for sport the minute they lose federal protections is irresponsible. The focus needs to be on ensuring sustained grizzly bear recovery and coexistence in the region.”
A hunting season will also depend on the outcome of a couple of legal hurdles. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Sierra Club and The Humane Society sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in late August saying climate change and human conflicts are already putting too much pressure on the charismatic creature.
And in early December, U.S. officials said they were going to review removing protections from grizzlies because of a federal appeals court decision regarding wolves in the Great Lakes. The appeals court said that wildlife officials had not considered the loss of the species’ historical range in their decision to delist.
The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release its conclusions by March 31.
Nesvik says the estimate is conservative, and that the proposed limit would not decrease the total number of grizzlies, as has been the case with wolf hunting.
Game and Fish is also proposing a hunting ban within a quarter mile of U.S. highways in the monitoring area. The prohibition is meant to prevent hunters from shooting bears visible to the public. It will also not allow hunting in the western portion of the hunt area surrounding Grand Teton National Park to help avoid hunters killing some of the more well-known bears — such as the famous Bear 399 — which draw people from around the world to view.
The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce asked for a similar provision in a letter to Game and Fish in August.
“We ask that as your agency experts develop hunt areas, quotas and seasons that they explicitly account for the economic value that bears represent for tourism and businesses in Wyoming,” the letter stated. “This could mean management options that include significantly reduced or no trophy hunting in and around Jackson Hole (and other tourism communities that voice the same concern).”
Hunting will not be allowed in either national park, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway or the Wind River Reservation.
Game and Fish spent a couple of months holding meetings around the state asking people for their views on grizzly bears. Wildlife managers reported their findings to the Game and Fish Commission in January and the commission directed the department to draft regulations.
Another series of public meetings will be held in March and April to discuss the regulations.
The commission will vote on the proposal on May 23 in Lander. If approved, the season will begin Sept. 1 outside of the monitoring area and Sept. 15 inside of it and close no later than Nov. 15.
Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect a clarification in the number of bears allowed to be killed in the demographic monitoring area.