Grizzly bear hunting in the Cowboy State could begin as soon as this fall, after the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s commission asked wildlife managers on Thursday to draft hunting regulations.
The public should be able to comment next month on specifics of the regulations, including hunting areas, season lengths and how licenses will be distributed, said Brian Nesvik, the department’s chief game warden.
The maximum number of bears that can be killed during a hunting season are set using a predetermined formula that cannot be changed by states.
Grizzly bears spent more than four decades on the endangered species list before being removed in June. The greater Yellowstone area population went from an estimated 136 bears in 1974 to just over 700 bears today.
A possible hunting season has been one of the most controversial proposals of state management. Idaho and Montana, which are also part of the greater Yellowstone area, may also allow hunting.
Multiple environmental and tribal groups including the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Humane Society have sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the delisting, saying the population still faces too many challenges to sustain hunting, such as climate change altering food sources and conflicts with humans.
Wildlife managers say the grizzly bear population has stabilized in the Yellowstone area, and has run out of room to grow.
If Wyoming pursues a hunting season, the number of bears permitted to be killed would depend on 2017’s population and mortalities. In 2016, for example, wildlife biologists estimated there were 695 bears in the greater Yellowstone area. To maintain population levels required in the management plan, 48 adult males and 19 adult females could die from any cause including car wrecks, fights with other bears, disease and old age or removal because of conflicts with humans.
That same year, 37 male bears and 12 female bears died, leaving a total of 18 possible bears in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to be killed during a hypothetical 2017 hunting season, according to the department.
Game and Fish held a series of meetings around the state in the fall of 2017 to gather ideas and information from the public about grizzly bear management.
Most people in the meetings supported the idea of hunting as a way to manage bears, Nesvik said. Many asked if hunting could be used as a way to control bears that regularly come into conflict with humans.
“While harvest will be extremely conservative, we are going to make that a goal to try and reduce the number of bears the agency has to remove that are in conflict,” Nesvik said. “For us, who have a charge from the public of managing for biological sustainability and opportunity, it’s better for a hunter to take a bear than a guy in a red shirt.”
Some groups commented late last year asking the department to consider prohibiting grizzly hunting in tourism communities such as Jackson, instead targeting hunting pressure in areas with high conflicts.
The department will hold at least eight meetings across the state to talk about hunting regulations and will consider all feedback from the public, Nesvik said.
In addition to the lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service is also reviewing how they removed federal protections for grizzlies after a recent appeals court decision regarding wolves in the Great Lakes. The court said wildlife officials had not considered the loss of the species’ historical range in their decision to delist wolves.
The Game and Fish Commission will consider the final proposed hunting regulations at its meeting May 23 in Lander.