Failing the Great Bear
The danger to Yellowstone’s grizzly bears isn’t regulated hunting. It’s human development.
By Andrew McKean, WHJ Conservation Editor
Over the last two weeks, as this piece nudged up to and then exceeded my editor’s deadline, I’ve had to rewrite the lede three times.
The topic, the status of the proposed grizzly bear hunt in the Yellowstone ecosystem, has had more plot twists and reversals of fortune than a Dickins novel as a federal judge first postponed the hunt (twice) and then suddenly halted this year’s hunt several weeks after it was scheduled to begin.
Every time the status changed, I’d change the beginning of this piece, so that it wasn’t totally stale in the couple weeks between when I email it to my editor and when it shows up in your mailbox. But it seems that any attempt to keep up with the pace of changes to this hunt will probably be futile.
Here’s what we know for sure: Grizzly hunting will not happen this fall.
Also known: Wildlife departments in both Wyoming and Idaho issued hunting permits for a limited hunt outside Yellowstone National Park this fall after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared that the grizzly population in the ecosystem had recovered sufficiently to be removed from federal endangered species act protection.
Suspected and now proven: Environmental groups used litigation as a means to overturn a federal rule that was based in widespread public involvement, commentary, and review. And now the first hunting seasons for grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states in nearly 40 years have been halted. It’s anybody’s guess whether they will be proposed, or approved, in the future.
The hunting seasons were intended to be conservative and tightly managed. Idaho Fish and Game issued a single tag for an adult male grizzly bear that could be taken in any of three hunting districts on the border of Yellowstone National Park. Wyoming’s hunting season was more aggressive. The Game and Fish Department issued tags for a quota of 12 bears in a hunting area well outside Yellowstone Park and 10 tags for an area adjacent to Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks. The season was designed to be shut down once a single female bear was killed.
But federal judge Dana Christensen, late in the day on Sept. 24, ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred when it delisted the Yellowstone grizzlies. Because of that decision, state management was removed and the bears returned to federal protection, which precluded hunting as a management tool.
As I write this, only a couple hours after Christensen’s decision, the pundits and commentators are starting to weigh in with their predictable sound bites. In some ways, this was entirely predictable. Montana, the third state that borders Yellowstone, opted to not hold a hunting season for fear that this very climate of uncertainty would dominate, and the state’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department didn’t want to subject hunters to the go-now-stop whiplash of the legally charged climate. That decision now seems prescient.
THE BIG PICTURE
All of the legal maneuvering has obscured one of the most salient points of the Yellowstone grizzly dynamic. That is that populations are thriving, relatively speaking, and without managing grizzlies as we do other wildlife species—by regulated hunting—that uncontrolled population will continue to grow beyond the carrying capacity of the available habitat.
That’s a fundamental wildlife-management dynamic. But because grizzlies are apex predators, there’s another, more fundamental, dynamic at work: public safety. As Judge Christensen was halting the hunt, the family of Wyoming hunting guide Mark Uptain was mourning the death of the father of five. Uptain was killed in mid-September by grizzlies that charged after he and his hunting client retrieved an elk deep in the Shoshone Wilderness between Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
Bear attacks of this severity are rare, but they’re getting more common as the number of grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem grow and bears start to disperse beyond the deep and relatively unvisited backcountry. The USGS keeps track of known mortalities of grizzlies in the Yellowstone country, and publishes results. So far in 2018, 44 grizzlies have died in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and by far the largest cause of death is at the hands of officials, who have euthanized bears that got in trouble, either attacking humans or depredating on livestock. The second largest cause of mortality: death by another bear, which is usually evidence of overcrowding of available habitat. The third-leading cause of mortality: vehicle collisions.
This is the population dynamic that ESA listing helped bring about—the federal protections allowed the region’s griz population to swell from 136 in the 1970s to more than 700 today—and that delisting was intended to solve, by keeping bears in check with habitat. What Christensen’s ruling doesn’t address is that continued federal protection is not in the best interests of the area’s grizzlies. They will continue to die at an accelerating pace as they run afoul with humans and our livestock, subdivisions, highways, and campsites.
Last year, more than 4.2 million people visited Yellowstone National Park. Over the past decade, visitation to the park has increased by nearly 40 percent. That pace of human visitation is unlikely to go down, but rather will probably continue to increase at a steady rate.
A carefully managed hunting season could accomplish two things that would benefit grizzlies as a population. First, by associating humans with danger, grizzlies would be more averse to human encounters. As it is, even negative encounters don’t immediately end badly for the bears, because federal penalties for harming a griz are so punitive. Second, the grizzlies that would be most available to licensed hunters are those that are closest to the human fringe, and those are often the bears that get into trouble. By using hunters as a management tool to remove problem grizzlies, there would be a greater acceptance of bears in the area. As it stands now, many residents of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would rather not have bears, because their increasing population brings increasing trouble.
But given all the interest in hunting—nearly 10,000 people applied for the 23 tags in Wyoming and Idaho—a managed hunting season could restore widespread acceptance of grizzlies. Not only as a functional part of the landscape, but as a species that provides economic and cultural benefits to the area.
This is the element of hunting that is so hard to communicate: that by allowing individuals to be removed, the population as a whole can be sustained.
Judge Christensen said he stopped the hunt because federal biologists hadn’t done a good enough job of addressing how a Yellowstone ecosystem hunt would affect the ability of grizzlies from other, adjacent ecosystems to interact with the Yellowstone population.
It’s a good and important consideration, especially because genetic isolation is one of the long-term problems not with Yellowstone’s population but with grizzly populations along the Continental Divide north of Yellowstone, in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and west into Idaho and even Washington’s North Cascades.
But a managed hunt, and the social tolerance that goes along with it, is actually a tool to allow for the spread of bears. If people in griz country tolerate more bears because they hope to hunt them, then that’s good not only for the population as a whole, but for the ability of individual well-behaving bears to roam between different ecosystems.
There’s another element to connectivity, one that wasn’t addressed in the judge’s ruling. That’s the explosive growth of human communities around Yellowstone. Biologists reckon that most of the available habitat for grizzlies is north of the park, in Gallatin and Madison counties in Montana. But anyone who’s visited Bozeman lately knows that the pace of human growth in that community is at a fever pitch. Bozeman, Mont., has been routinely listed as the fastest-growing community of its size in America, and other towns in Gallatin County are booming. Belgrade and Manhattan are posting 11 percent annual growth rates.
The human population of Madison County is growing more slowly, but the pace of rural subdivisions, which not only hinder the movement of wildlife across the landscape but offer grizzlies plenty of unhealthy attraction (to livestock and human settlement) is growing quickly.
Without addressing these human-caused bottlenecks that impede bear migration, it’s laughable to point to hunting as the reason for genetic isolation.
If there’s an upside to Judge Christensen’s ruling, it’s that it may have prevented—or at least postponed—an American-style Cecil-the-Lion sort of backlash against sport hunting. With all eyes on the Yellowstone grizzly hunt, the stage was set for some sort of unsavory event, whether a wounded grizzly bear running onto a well-traveled road, or a bear recognized by the legion of photographers around the park taken by a licensed hunter, or a hunter confirming through his or her actions that all they care about are the trophy parts of a bear.
While I hope that someday we get to hunt grizzlies, because I think hunting is our best tool for sustainability, I also don’t relish the media circus that a hunt may bring.
So let’s use Judge Christensen’s ruling as a pause to catch our breath, respect our democratic systems, and work toward making hunting part of a natural, normal management tool that will keep grizzlies as the embodiment—and functional part—of the last remaining wild places in America.