HomeOutdoorsNewsDebate Over Grizzly Bear Protection Echoes Gray Wolf Conundrum

Debate Over Grizzly Bear Protection Echoes Gray Wolf Conundrum

by Jon D. B.
grizzly bear 399 in Wyoming
Grizzly bear named "399" walks with her four cubs along the main highway near Signal Mountain on June 15, 2020 outside Jackson, Wyoming. 399 inhabits Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest and is considered by some to be the most famous brown bear mother in the world. She just gave birth to four cubs at the age of 24. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

“Depending on what Montana does here, Montana could be to grizzly bears what Wyoming was to wolves,” offers attorney David Willms to WyoFile‘s Mike Koshmrl in an extensive op-ed Monday.

Koshmrl’s report details a possible Wyoming grizzly bear hunt to come. It’s “a near certainty,” he says, if federal authorities approve Wyoming’s petition to remove the bears from the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

This is not the first time the state has moved to do so. Alongside gray wolves, intense debate rages on over the grizzlies’ fate and whether state-sanctioned hunting should commence. It’s become a leading topic for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem states, which include Montana and Idaho alongside Wyoming. And it continues to dominate their political landscape despite being an ecological conundrum.

David Willms, an attorney and once policy advisor to former Wyoming Goveror Matt Mead, also teaches an Endangered Species Act (ESA) course at the University of Wyoming. To Willms, the prospect of a grizzly bear hunt in the state should be a non-starter, as ESA laws will prevent delisting the species in WY outright.

‘There’s no path to delisting without the Fish and Wildlife Service working with all three states, and with all three states working together’

As ESA case laws dictate, any “distinct population segment” of a species cannot be delisted along state lines, Willms cites. This is crucial when considering delisting grizzlies in Wyoming, as they belong to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Politics govern these decisions, however, not nature. If Wyoming has their delisting petition passed, then it would effectively break that ESA border precedent. This would then open the door for Montana and Idaho to hunt their grizzly bears alongside. Yet this can only happen if all three states work in tandem.

“There’s no path to delisting without the Fish and Wildlife Service working with all three states, and with all three states working together,” Willms tells Koshmrl.

So far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has dismissed attempts from the triage. USFWS just shut down Idaho’s grizzly bear petition (for removal from ESA protections in the state) in February. The agency cited a lack of “substantial, credible information” by the petition. This is where Wyoming is hoping to course correct.

Apex Predators: Grizzly Bears Face Similar ESA Challenges to Gray Wolves

The grizzly bear conundrum reminds Willms of the gray wolf’s recent ESA delisting in the Northern Rockies. It was a long process that began over a decade ago, and Wyoming was key to slowing everything down. The state insisted on classifying wolves as “unprotected predators in 85% of the state,” Willms cites, which was a no-go.

gray wolf canis lupus
Gray wolf (Canis lupus) (Photo by Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Wolves dominated headlines throughout 2020-2022 as their ESA protection wavered. First, the Trump administration would remove ESA protection for gray wolves in October of 2020. Following a Feb. 10, 2022 court order under the Biden administration, gray wolves in the contiguous 48 states and Mexico regained protection under the ESA. Today, the species is listed as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in all other states – with the exception of the Northern Rocky Mountain population which remains unprotected, USFWS details.

‘Wyoming hasn’t signaled what grizzly hunting might look like’

Where grizzly bears are concerned, “Wyoming hasn’t signaled what grizzly hunting might look like outside the monitoring area at the Yellowstone region’s core if the state reassumes control,” Koshmrl reports.

“Last time, the peripheral hunt was pitched as a tool to drive down the population, mimicking the structure of the state’s two-tiered wolf management regime, which keeps wolf numbers outside of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as low as possible,” he adds.

“To be responsible, we’d still have limits in place,” Dan Thompson, leader of the large carnivore section of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, tells Koshmrl of grizzlies.

As for what that may look like, around 80 grizzly bears would be up for hunting in Wyoming. But the state has been here – and failed – before. In 2018, the state’s similarly-planned grizzly hunt was axed before execution after extensive backlash.

That year, Wyoming sought an additional dozen grizzly bears on the fringes of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Trophy hunters were even selected for the harvesting. Yet despite no federal restrictions in these areas, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen declared an injunction – ceasing the hunt.

Christensen would later direct federal managers to relist grizzlies as threatened under the ESA, before rejecting another USFWS attempt at delisting the species.

Whatever reasoning Wyoming brings to the table in 2023 will need beyond-solid footing as a result.