“What Are We Fighting About?” 9th Circuit Hears Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Delisting Case

May 20, 2020

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Louisa Willcox

 Court hearings over the fate of grizzlies have always made me nervous, and the one on May 5th was no exception. For the second time in ten years, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on whether or not Yellowstone grizzlies should be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The future of Yellowstone’s bruins rests upon whether or not this panel upholds a 2018 order issued by Montana District Judge Dana Christensen to restore endangered species protections for the Yellowstone population.

My throat tightened when Judge Andrew Hurwitz asked: “What are we fighting about here?” The answer has more to do with morality and compassion than it does with legal technicalities. And the question deserves to be examined in light of three decades of court battles over Yellowstone grizzlies – battles that I’ve watched from a front-row seat.

First, some context. The panel’s hearing capped a legal dispute that has raged for the past three years over whether endangered species protections for the Yellowstone bear should be stripped. A final ruling is expected in the next several months. At issue is whether management authority should be turned over to the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana – states that plan to kill more bears, including by trophy hunting.

The hearing was surreal because the federal government had already conceded defeat, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the US Fish & Wildlife Service (the Service) needed to step back and analyze how delisting Yellowstone’s bears would affect recovery of grizzlies in other nearby populations. In another example of legal arcana, grizzlies in the more robust population around Glacier Park, as well as in the Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak, are considered part of the “remnant.”

Judge Hurwitz was justifiably confused by the fact that federal lawyers were demanding the Court’s precious time to contest what seemed an uncontested issue, asking: “Is there anybody in this case who doesn’t think the remnant shouldn’t remain listed? Tell me what we’re fighting about if everybody agrees the remnant should remain listed.”

Department of Justice attorney Joan Pepin, who represented the Service, agreed but then dodged, asking the court to narrow the scope of Christensen’s ruling to give the agency maximum “flexibility.” Pepin doth protest too much, I thought.

So what was this hearing about anyway?  In a word: Wyoming.

What are We Fighting About? Wyoming and State Management

I have no doubt that Wyoming led the charge into the 9th Circuit. Indeed, for the last three decades, Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF) Department has spearheaded the fight to wrest control over managing grizzlies from the federal government.

So it was hardly surprising to see Wyoming’s attorney, Jay Jerde, presenting arguments on behalf of intervenors that included Idaho and — tellingly — the NRA, Safari Club, and livestock organizations.

Like me, Jerde has gotten grizzled during the many years he’s contested management of Yellowstone bruins. But his age-worn tune hasn’t changed: “the bear is recovered, we are the professionals, and federal management of endangered species violates state sovereignty over wildlife.  Give us the keys to grizzly bear management.”

I first heard this mantra in 1992, when WGF Director Pete Petera tried to bully the Service into delisting Yellowstone grizzlies. But Wyoming (in concert with Idaho and Montana) had begun agitating to remove ESA protections as early as 1985 when Yellowstone grizzlies were at their nadir of only a few hundred bears. The states’ zeal may seem baffling unless you consider their longstanding financial dependencies on hunters, their belief that large carnivores are part of a zero-sum competition for elk, their blind devotion to hunting, and their obsessive quest for power.

Delisting would allow the states to unleash a lethal regime on Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, exacerbating recent population declines triggered by the climate-driven loss of whitebark pine— a source of food that had been (and in some places still is) a staple of Yellowstone bears. There is little doubt that state management would push bears in this ecosystem back to the precipice they narrowly escaped only because of federal intervention under the ESA.

Nonetheless, Jerde requested that the Court reject Judge Christensen’s order in its entirety and reinstate the Service’s 2017 rule that had delisted grizzlies and triggered the current round of litigation.

Importantly, Wyoming would not have had its day in court if the Service, the Defendant in the case, had declined to appeal Christensen’s ruling. Having seen plenty of tantrums by Wyoming Game and Fish officials over the years – including threats to walk away from grizzly bear management entirely if the Service did not rush to delist – I could just imagine the drama behind the scenes that led to the federal government’s half-hearted appeal. (It should be said that the Service shares the states’ delisting agenda, but with a more civil demeanor and, sometimes, a tad more sense).

At a fundamental level, this hearing was about little more than the federal government giving Wyoming a stage to throw another fit — in front of a different audience.

But, for the grizzly, the stakes could not be higher.

Washing Dishes: Binding or Voluntary?

On behalf of WildEarth Guardians, Matt Bishop of Western Environmental Law Center addressed the threats posed by long-term genetic isolation of Yellowstone’s grizzly population. In his relisting order, Christensen had found that the government had not adequately addressed this issue, noting that the Service had “illogically cobble[d]” together studies to demonstrate that the population’s isolation was no longer a threat to the species’ continued survival.”

Bishop reinforced his conclusion, saying: “Not a single (scientific) paper has said that grizzlies are OK in the long term.”

Scientists are increasingly concerned about the century-plus isolation of Yellowstone grizzlies, which is especially worrisome given the population’s relatively small size. Out of a population of 740 or so animals, only a couple hundred can potentially breed. In the long term, geneticists believe that this is a recipe for disaster, and argue that the best solution is to reconnect Yellowstone to other grizzly bear populations. Experts also maintain that relocating grizzlies to Yellowstone from other populations is a move of last resort.

In recent years, grizzlies have been expanding westward from Yellowstone and southeast from the Northern Continental Divide, raising hopes for natural connectivity. But Bishop warned that hunting grizzlies on the ecosystem’s periphery would reverse this progress.

In response to questioning, Pepin said that the Service would consider translocating grizzlies to Yellowstone to augment genetic diversity if Northern Rockies populations did not reconnect naturally. But she did not commit the government to any course of action to address the problem.

Bishop made the case for binding rather than discretionary commitments. He got the only smile of the day from all three judges when he used the analogy of negotiating with his teenage daughter over washing the dishes: would she do what he asked or just consider the request?

Clearly, a win on this issue could boost prospects for reconnecting grizzly bear populations in the Northern Rockies, including recolonization of the vast Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem that grizzlies are just now rediscovering.

Paper vs. Real Bears and the Counting Problem

Jerde was especially worked up over the lower court’s decision regarding management of bear mortality if new methods are adopted to count bears — an issue called “recalibration.” Judge Christensen had found that future changes in methods for estimating population size could result in creating “paper bears” and allow state managers to kill hundreds more bears by using different but convenient statistical gimcrackery.  The Service can change methods, he ruled, but it must ensure that management of mortality is prudent and precautionary.

During deliberations in 2016 over the Service’s draft delisting rule, both the former Director of the Service, Dan Ashe, and former Yellowstone Park Superintendent, Dan Wenk, had raised concerns about the consequences of creating paper bears. Both were called to heel by higher-ups catering to state interests.

Jerde claimed that methods for counting bears would not change for the “foreseeable future.” But federal scientists have repeatedly stated that they will soon unveil a new method – a fact that 9th Circuit Judge Paul J. Watford echoed, saying: “There are strong indications in the very near future a new population estimator will be adopted.”

The most likely method on the horizon would almost certainly boost bear numbers by a substantial amount. If benchmarks for managing mortality are not correspondingly “recalibrated,” the states would have free rein to kill literally hundreds of bears. Due to weak post-delisting monitoring, a major drop in the population would probably not be detected in time to reverse course.  Even if problems were detected, would be no binding mechanisms to correct them. More on this later.

What We Need to Keep Fighting About: Climate Change and Dead Bears

Because the hearing focused narrowly on procedural and jurisdictional issues, the most critical and immediate threats to Yellowstone’s bears — climate change and unsustainable bear deaths — did not come up, although the Court could consider these issues given that they are amply covered in written briefing materials.

This Court is no stranger to the threats posed to Yellowstone’s grizzlies by climate change. In fact, climate change had been front and center in litigation over a previous attempt to delist Yellowstone grizzlies in 2007.  The 9th Circuit Court upheld a 2009 order by District Judge Donald Molloy to reinstate ESA protections on the grounds that the Service had failed to consider the impacts of the climate-driven collapse of whitebark pine – and had even lied about the severity of the problem.

As I listened to the hearing last week, I could not help but reflect on the previous 9th Circuit hearing during 2009. For me, a highlight from that earlier give and take was a question posed by Judge Susan Graber: “Isn’t it true that female grizzlies produce fewer cubs after years of poor whitebark pine seeds?”

True indeed – and the kind of question that you would expect a mother to ask, not to mention someone invested in understanding the science relevant to grizzly bears. It was also true that, by 2009, a mountain pine beetle outbreak unleashed by a warming climate had killed over 70% of Yellowstone’s whitebark pine, making every year a poor year for seed crops.

These forests have continued to succumb to beetles and an introduced pathogen called white pine blister rust, while the terrible consequences have become increasingly clear. Pepin’s dismissal of any negative effects arising from loss of whitebark pine was hardly surprising given that the government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars during the past ten years attempting to paper over the threat posed to grizzlies by climate change.

Since losing in court, government researchers funded by the Service have produced more than a dozen narrowly focused publications with an overt partisan spin designed to bolster the case for delisting. Virtually all of this research relied on impenetrable models, flawed assumptions, faulty logic, and data that the government tenaciously hides. Their conclusions? Bears are omnivores (no kidding), and dandelions and ants are great substitutes for calorie-rich pine seeds. (Really?)

Government models notwithstanding, grizzlies have not been faring well. Resourceful bears have been compensating for the losses of pine seeds by seeking out other high-calorie foods, largely in the form of meat. In a trend I would not have predicted a decade ago, bears are increasingly predating on cows and scavenging elk meat left by big game hunters. Learning that the sound of a gunshot can be a dinner bell, bears are mixing it up with hunters in contests that grizzlies typically lose. Today, conflicts with hunters and livestock producers have replaced conflicts over garbage and human attractants as the leading causes of grizzly bear deaths.

Shattering Records of Grizzly Deaths

The death toll reflects these changes. Between 2015 and 2018 grizzly bear deaths shattered previous records — in a population that has been flatlined for nearly 20 years. What is particularly disturbing is that in 2018 eleven deaths were listed as “Under Investigation” for possible poaching. This unprecedented spike occurred just one year after Yellowstone grizzlies were delisted. As has been documented elsewhere, removal of protections was perhaps construed by some people as tacit permission to unleash a personal vendetta against bears.

Not surprisingly, the deaths exceeded the government’s thresholds of allowable mortality during 2015-2018. Mortality limits are one of the very few standards that were included in the Service’s 2017 delisting rule — and it matters given that excessive human-caused deaths helped land the bear on the endangered species list in the first place.

According to the delisting rule, if allowable limits are breached two years in a row, bear managers are supposed to do something. But they have not even admitted to a problem.

Interestingly, starting in 2015, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, charged with keeping mortality records, stopped reporting on whether thresholds were breached. You can figure this out for yourself by scrutinizing the Study Team’s annual reports, but it’s complicated. The point is that managers may have no clue they have a problem.

In fact, that seems to be the case. At a recent meeting of Yellowstone grizzly bear managers, a Committee charged with investigating how human-grizzly bear conflicts might be reduced erroneously claimed that “grizzly mortalities are below threshold.”

As numbers of grizzly bear deaths mount, the population is at a tipping point.  And our climate will almost certainly continue to warm, with worsening consequences for bears. Models show that we are likely to lose army cutworm moths, another staple food for Yellowstone grizzlies that has, for now, picked up some of the slack left by dead whitebark pine. Moths rely on alpine flower nectar, but as tundra migrates off the top of the mountains during the next century, moth habitat will disappearBerries are expected to decline too. These losses will likely prompt grizzlies to continue foraging closer to people, with predictable results.

Although the 9th Circuit may not rule on these issues, the fight over climate change and its impacts on bears will not end any time soon.

What Could Have Been: Adequate Regulatory Mechanisms

During the hearing I found myself staring at Chief Judge Sidney Thomas’ mug shot on the Court’s home page and thinking about his role ten years ago in the decision to keep grizzlies protected. With Judge Graber he had served on the panel that upheld Judge Donald Molloy’s finding regarding whitebark pine. However, two out of the three judges on the panel (Graber and Tallman) over-turned Molloy’s finding that post-delisting regulatory mechanisms were not adequate to maintain the population because they were not binding.

In dissenting with his colleagues, Judge Thomas wrote: “There is not a single federal or state law or regulation that provides a means for enforcing the [Conservation] Strategy’s mortality standards. Rather, if the grizzly population becomes threatened, the agency is to review the situation and call a committee meeting. And that only occurs if the mortality limits are exceeded for at least two years.

The Service’s reliance on voluntary action is contrary to law. … Good intentions are not rules of law. Unenforceable aspirational goals are not regulatory mechanisms. Promises to monitor, review, and convene committees do not satisfy the statutory requirement.”

He agreed with Molloy who wrote: “The majority of the regulatory mechanisms relied upon by the Service — the Conservation Strategy, Forest Plan amendments, and state plans — depend on guidelines, monitoring, and promises, or good intentions for future action. Such provisions are not adequate regulatory mechanisms when there is no way to enforce them or to ensure that they will occur.”

Molloy also took aim at the government’s “damn the torpedoes” approach to delisting – an approach that has not changed in the intervening decade.

As Matt Bishop described, post-delisting plans are still built on a quicksand of promises. I am not alone in thinking that the fight over grizzlies today would be less ferocious if the government had adopted binding regulations along with mechanisms to trigger corrections should problems arise.

Parenthetically, Molloy and Thomas are both Montanans — born, raised and educated in the state. Christensen, who was appointed to the seat on the United States District Court for the District of Montana that was vacated by Molloy, went to law school at the University of Montana and has lived in Montana since 1976. Could it be that living in a state where you are likely to rub shoulders with wildlife managers offers special insights into how grizzlies might be managed?

I am reminded of a day, years ago, when I overheard another federal judge, also from Montana, say to an attorney: “you know, I don’t know why you would ever trust the states with the grizzly.”

Touché.

Of Commonsense and The Court of Public Opinion

No matter what the 9th Circuit decides, this will not be the Court’s last word about the bear. After Pepin conceded that there would likely be opportunity for further judicial review, Judge Mary Schroeder dryly noted: “I am sure of that.”

Still, litigation is always a roll of the dice. For decades, we have been relying on lawyers to save the Yellowstone grizzly from doom. They have been remarkably successful, but leaning too hard on lawyers is a dangerous game – and why I have a knot in my stomach and my well-washed fingers crossed.

We have long needed to take this fight to the court of public opinion. To address the current crisis, we need to strengthen law enforcement and improve coexistence practices. There is no lack of ideas or expertise on this front. Since 1991 bear managers have produced numerous reports containing detailed recommendations, many related to reducing numbers of hunter- and livestock-related conflicts. Few have been comprehensively implemented, largely because of insufficient funding, courage, and political support.

Reducing conflicts between bears and people is not something we should be fighting over, but rather a commonsense win-win solution.

We can also do more politically. We can ask our representatives to support the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act sponsored by Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). The bill would ban trophy hunting and protect grizzlies for their ecological and cultural values. It would also guarantee Native American Tribes a role in conserving and managing the grizzlies that many Tribes consider to be sacred. Moreover, many Tribes have legal claim to lands where grizzlies could be recovered, including substantial areas that could reconnect existing populations.

Reform of state wildlife management is also increasingly important. The numbers of people who value wildlife for intrinsic reasons are climbing at the same time that hunter numbers are dropping. More and more, the public is demanding that state managers protect wildlife for its own sake, rather than for hunting. (I have written about this complicated issue here and here.) More practically, we need to provide financial and other incentives for state agencies to serve the broader public interest, not a well-heeled minority of hunters and ranchers who have been driving the states’ “damn the torpedoes” approach to grizzly bear management.

After thanking the bear’s devoted lawyers one more time, there is a lot we can do right now for grizzlies, including giving them more space and more compassion. We also need to make our governments accountable and worthy of our trust. Ultimately, how we manage grizzlies in their last refuges in Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies is a measure of who we are. Are our hearts big enough to keep grizzlies in our midst?

You can listen to the May 5th 9th Circuit court hearing here.

Hunter’s accidental gunshot hits Cody business

Posted 

https://www.powelltribune.com/stories/hunters-accidental-gunshot-hits-cody-business,22576

A deer hunter accidentally fired his rifle through his vehicle and into a building on Cody’s West Strip last month.

No one was injured in the Oct. 28 incident, which took place at a Wyoming Game and Fish Department game check station on West Yellowstone Avenue, near the South Fork turnoff.

A Cody police report on the incident says the hunter, Charles Lance Mathess, had attempted to unload his rifle while waiting for a game warden.

“Mathess reported that he operated the bolt of the firearm several times and then removed the magazine,” wrote Cody Police Officer Seth Horn, adding that, “his finger was on the trigger and as he set the rifle down he negligently discharged the rifle.”

Horn found that the round traveled through the rear passenger side door of Mathess’ Dodge Ram, crossed Yellowstone Avenue and struck a vent on a building that houses The Best of the West; the vent is located about 20 feet off the ground. Horn’s report says a representative of Best of the West — a company that produces TV shows and equipment related to long range hunting — was not concerned about the damage.

The officer concluded in his report that Mathess’ actions “did not rise to the level of a violation of Wyoming State Statute.”

Dan Smith, the Cody Region wildlife supervisor for Game and Fish, called the Oct. 28 incident “a good example of how accidents can and do happen.”

As part of its general work on safety issues, Smith said the Game and Fish asks hunters to assume their gun is loaded, control the direction of their muzzle and know what’s beyond their target.

“I’m glad nobody got hurt,” he added of the incident at the South Fork turnoff. “I’m thankful for that.”

Mathess is the public affairs officer and search and rescue coordinator for the Park County Sheriff’s Office, which are civilian positions; the police report notes that he was off-duty at the time of the incident.

Dogs caught in traps meant for wildlife spurs workshop

JACKSON, Wyo. — Multiple incidents of domestic dogs inadvertently caught in leghold traps intended for wildlife has local advocacy group Wyoming Untrapped warning dog owners and scheduling another informative Trap Release Workshop for this weekend.

Last week, a friend was walking Natalie Tanaka’s dog Roswell up Darby Canyon. They came upon a fox that was caught in a trap. While investigating, Roswell also became ensnared in another trap nearby. Roswell was so panicked he bit his human, who could not get the trap released. A sheriff’s deputy was called and he could not get the dog loose by himself until backup arrived.

Some 45 minutes later, Roswell was freed and pronounced mostly unharmed by a local vet. Just some soft tissue damage. Roswell’s human friend is undergoing antibiotic treatment for the dog bites.

“I appreciate the assistance of all of those who helped. I’m thankful my pup will be okay,” Tanaka told Wyoming Untrapped. “I understand rural life. However, I don’t believe in the inhumane treatment of animals. Traps are nasty, excruciatingly painful, and slow. The tortured animal has to be in pain for days before humans are legally required to go see what’s in the trap. We can do better than this barbaric practice.”

The trap was set legally.

In the days following Roswell’s close call, two more dogs in eastern Idaho were caught in leg snares in Tetonia and Victor.

Lisa Rob, director of Wyoming Untrapped, said, “Due to several pet trapping events in just a week, WU has received several requests to host another Trap Release Workshop.”

The workshop will take place Saturday, November 23, from 1:30 – 3:30 p.m. at the Teton County Library in Jackson. Carter Niemeyer, retired Fish and Wildlife Director of the wolf recovery, will direct the workshop and share his experiences. He will demonstrate how to release an animal from a variety of traps.

Experts project 72 grizzlies will die due to cattle conflicts

‘Really tough decision’ to authorize grazing where there’s chronic conflict, forest ranger says.

Federal wildlife officials foresee and have approved growing grizzly bear bloodshed on a sprawling complex of Bridger-Teton National Forest cattle grazing allotments recently permitted for the long haul.

The Bridger-Teton’s Pinedale District ranger, Rob Hoelscher, signed off in early October on a decision OK’ing the continuation of a historic grazing operation on 267 square miles of forestland that falls in the Upper Green and Gros Ventre river drainages. That decision instituted a number of minor changes, like giving the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association more flexibility in rotating its cows, tweaking utilization standards for vegetation heights and authorizing some new fencing.

A larger shift, however, is outlined in an accompanying document called a biological opinion, which estimates the federal action’s impact on a threatened or endangered species — in this case, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears. The updated overall estimate of grizzly bears that will be “incidentally taken” as a result of the Upper Green grazing, the April 2019 document says, is 72 bruins between the 2019 and 2028 grazing seasons.

Upper Green grazing

Phil McGinnis looks for cattle in one of the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association’s Bridger-Teton grazing allotments in 2016. Federal wildlife officials have authorized the incidental taking of up 72 grizzly bears in the area over the next 10 years.

“We had a number of conversations with the grizzly bear recovery coordinator and also with Wyoming Game and Fish,” said Nathan Darnall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy supervisor for Wyoming. “When we start talking numbers this large, we all have to pause for a second and ask if this number is sustainable.

“In looking at the grizzly population and looking at the future expansion of the population … we decided that this number, in concert with everything else, was sustainable,” he said.

The Greater Yellowstone grizzly population is estimated at around 700, though an undetermined number of Ursus arctos horribilis dwell on the fringes of the region outside where the species is carefully monitored.

“This is not going to jeopardize the population of bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Darnall said. “We’re not going to see numbers dipping below recovery levels, and we would still expect the population to increase.”

Darnall and his colleagues at Fish and Wildlife, who oversee grizzlies because they’re currently classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, produced the biological opinion.

The document points out that not all bears in the Upper Green cause trouble and that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has documented bears with territories in the allotments that haven’t killed cattle.

“Nonetheless, bear conflicts with livestock increased an average of 10 percent each year,” the opinion says. “We believe this trend is likely to continue within the action area. Within the last nine years 37 grizzly bears were lethally removed from the action area due to conflicts with livestock.”

The all-time high mark for lethal action taken in response to dead cows came in 2018, when Wyoming had jurisdiction over the species during the grazing season, didn’t need Fish and Wildlife authorization, and opted to kill eight depredating grizzlies.

The 72 grizzlies authorized for removal over the coming decade is a large increase from the most recent estimate, in 2014. That year the “take” was set at a maximum of 11 bears over any rolling three-year period.

Grizzly bear removals
Capture locations of grizzly bears removed due to livestock conflicts within the Upper Green Allotment Complex.

The 69-page document puts numbers to the rising rate of ursine-bovine conflict that led to the higher estimate. Although ranchers reported a relative lull this summer in the slaughter of both cattle and bears, since the turn of the century conflict has soared in the Upper Green as grizzly range has expanded and filled in that portion of the Bridger-Teton.

Between 2010 and 2018, Game and Fish and federal wildlife managers confirmed 527 conflicts, almost exclusively cattle that were killed or maimed. The majority, the document says, occurred in the last five years, and they took place “throughout the action area.”

The 1,112-square-mile “action area” assessed in the document is much larger than the actual allotments, taking into account grizzlies estimated to inhabit areas up to 7.5 miles away from the allotments. The more than 9,000 cow/calf pairs and few dozen horses permitted to graze the expansive rangeland have proven a big attractant, according to grizzly bear GPS collar data cited in the opinion. One bear captured after killing cattle on the allotments, grizzly No. 499, denned clear across the mighty Wind River Range, 24 miles away on the Wind River Reservation. Another Upper Green grizzly captured for research, bear No. 754, denned 29 miles away near the east boundary of Grand Teton National Park.

This iteration of Fish and Wildlife’s biological opinion for the Upper Green did not estimate the grizzly population in the “action area” surrounding the allotments. In 2013 the agency put the number at somewhere between 51 and 60 grizzlies.

Fourth-generation Upper Green stockman Albert Sommers, who helps run the Cattlemen’s Association, has tried and failed to change his grazing protocols in a way that reduces grizzly conflict. The operation pencils out, he’s told the News&Guide, only because of Wyoming compensation programs. In 2016 and 2017 Sommers worked with the conflict-reduction group People and Carnivores to test a herding technique that bunched up his bovines at night. It had “no effect on depredation,” the Fish and Wildlife’s opinion said, and was discontinued.

“I still go to conferences,” Sommers told the News&Guide this summer, “and listen to ideas.”

Not all parties paying attention to the chronic conflict in the Upper Green are satisfied with a gruesome status quo that’s forecasted to worsen. Center for Biological Diversity employee Andrea Santarsiere, of Victor, Idaho, said that the Bridger-Teton grazing complex is “good habitat” that’s turned into a “population sink” bound to continually attract more bears, resulting in more conflict.

“It’s just a cyclical problem that they’re not going to be able to resolve without taking some conservation measures on the ground,” Santarsiere said.

Grizzly conflict map
The map compares grizzly bear/cattle conflicts in the Upper Green Allotment Complex between 2010-14 and between 2015-2018.

Mandatory conservation measures in the Bridger-Teton’s decision, she said, are “lacking terribly.”

“Pretty much everything that we asked for was ignored or significantly watered down,” she said.

During the “objection process” with the forest in early 2018, Santarsiere tried to make it mandatory for range riders to carry bear spray, but the language was turned into a recommendation. It was a similar story, she said, with carcass removal requirements that the conservation community sought.

“They have to move carcasses under the new decision if they are too close to roads where the public might be, which protects the public,” Santarsiere said. “But that’s not doing a lot to protect grizzly bears, because all they have to do is move them a little ways from the road.”

Hoelscher, the Bridger-Teton district ranger, said authorizing the mostly business-as-usual Upper Green grazing plans was a “really difficult decision.” He acknowledged that the regulations relating to grizzly conflict are largely unchanged.

“The permittees as well as the state have done a lot of trying to figure out what works, and what doesn’t,” Hoelscher said, “and they’re pretty much already doing about all they can do.”

“I feel it’s very important to maintain the lifestyles and the industry here locally for the permittees,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what comes out of this all.”

Santarsiere, who is an environmental attorney, said she’s considering her options.

Game and Fish proposes reduced wolf hunt quota

https://www.gillettenewsrecord.com/news/wyoming/article_1ff5ed2d-cc11-5844-a41a-aedd86998f2d.html

PINEDALE – One of the anticipated changes to this year’s hunting season regulations will be the trophy-game gray wolf quota set by Wyoming Game and Fish each year.

This year, with most trophy wolf hunt areas opening on Sept. 1, Game and Fish is proposing a lower harvest of 34, compared to the quota of 58 set in 2018. The proposed wolf hunts as well as changes in furbearing, falconry, firearm cartridges, archery and mountain lions regulations will be discussed and are open for comment through June 17.

The proposed 2019 wolf quota appears conservative, with some quotas almost halved from 2018, but large carnivore biologist Ken Mills of Pinedale said the end-of-year objective remains at about 160 wolves. Higher human-caused mortality rates are expected – and much larger litters are expected, he added.

“The main data from which the mortality limits are derived include the number of wolves in the Wolf Trophy Game Management Area and the estimated mortality rate required to move the population toward the end-of-year objective,” he said.

Last year ended with an estimated 152 wolves within the trophy-game management area, eight below the wildlife agency’s objective. Balancing all of the factors includes gaining eight more wolves to be right at 160.

“We had at least 152 wolves in the WTGMA, which is 28 percent less than what we had at the start of 2018,” Mills explained. “However, we estimate a much higher human-caused mortality rate will be required to offset population growth (49.5 percent this year vs. 25.8 percent last year) because the population is lower and should reproduce at a higher rate.”

Mills added, “Note we are proposing the same end-of-year population objective as we did last year, 160 wolves, which means a slight increase in the population (eight wolves) to be sure we continue to remain above minimum recovery criteria, mostly the 10 breeding pairs.”

Mills said Game and Fish will keep the “same approach to depredation response as usual, not more or less aggressive.”

In 2018, predator conflicts declined but about the same number of wolves were removed as in 2017.

“We usually have had around 23-percent human-caused mortality, which includes lethal control in addition to hunting since 2009, so (it is) pretty constant.”

Groups Intend to Sue Over New Wyoming Grizzly Hunt Law

Groups file notice of intent to sue over a new Wyoming law that could authorize grizzly bear hunting even though grizzlies are federally protected.

Feb. 20, 2019, at 5:56 p.m.

CHEYENNE, WYO. (AP) — Environmental groups have filed notice they intend to sue over a new Wyoming law that could authorize grizzly bear hunting even though grizzlies are federally protected.

The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and Western Watersheds Project sent the notice Wednesday to Wyoming officials including the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Wyoming and Idaho were preparing to hold grizzly bear hunts in 2018 when a federal judge in Montana ruled the bears needed re-listing as a threatened species.

On Friday, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill that would allow the state Game and Fish Commission to plan a grizzly bear hunt, anyway.

The groups say Wyoming lacks authority to hold a grizzly hunt. Wyoming officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Why These Grizzly-Loving Women Entered a Lottery to Hunt Grizzlies

Inside the environmental protest sweeping Wyoming.

Grizzly bear 399 and three of her cubs.
Grizzly bear 399 and three of her cubs. COURTESY THOMAS D. MANGELSEN

ON THE MORNING OF THURSDAY, July 26, around 7,000 people logged in to the website of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, their fingers crossed. All had entered a lottery that would allow them to hunt a grizzly bear in the continental United States for the first time in decades.

One of these people was Kelly Mayor—a 56-year-old resident of Jackson, Wyoming. She had entered the lottery at the very last minute, just hours before it closed, and didn’t think to check the results until she got a reminder email. When she clicked through, she was greeted by a screen that said “#2.” She’d won the second spot in the hunt. “I was dumbfounded,” she says.

Mayor doesn’t actually want to kill a grizzly. She, like thousands of others across the country, entered the bear tag lottery as an act of protest. All these people are part of “Shoot ‘Em With a Camera, Not a Gun,” a movement spearheaded by a group of Wyoming women who are hoping to change how their state thinks about wildlife management—and maybe save some grizzlies in the process.

A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park.
A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Huge and shaggy-coated, the grizzly bear is an icon of the American west. About 700 of them live in and around Yellowstone National Park, the beneficiaries of conservation efforts that have brought their numbers up fivefold since the mid-1970s, when they were first added to the endangered species list and began receiving federal protection. Last summer, Yellowstone-area grizzlies were removed from the list, and management of the bears was turned over to the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Montana decided not to have a hunt this year, and Idaho is raffling off a single license. But this past spring, the Wyoming Game & Fish Commission—the policy arm of the Game & Fish Department—voted unanimously to allow up to 22 bears to be killed. Commissioners argue that hunting a limited number of bears will reduce human-wildlife conflict, and that provisions in place—including mandatory training for tag winners and a prohibition on killing female bears with dependent young—will prevent the hunt from affecting the species’s recovery.

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Others disagree with the decision. The American Society of Mammalogists has called the delisting “premature,” pointing out that although their population numbers have gone up, grizzlies are still not prevalent enough to guarantee a robust and genetically diverse population. Thanks to a campaign from the Center for Biological Diversity, several billboards in the West now depict a grizzly with the legend “I am not a trophy.”

Nonconsumptive advocates, photographing grizzlies outside Yellowstone.
Nonconsumptive advocates, photographing grizzlies outside Yellowstone. JAMES ST. JOHN/CC BY 2.0

One of the hunt’s opponents is Deidre Bainbridge, a lawyer who also lives in Jackson. Bainbridge is passionate about wildlife, and for years, she and others have been advocating for a category of nature enthusiast she calls “the non-consumptive advocate.” As opposed to a hunter, fisher, or trapper, Bainbridge explains, a non-consumptive advocate “cares about wildlife simply because it’s there”—although people may want to see it, or take a picture, they aren’t looking to kill it.

Because the Game & Fish department is funded by hunting and fishing licenses, along with firearm, ammunition, and fishing tackle sales, “that kind of person doesn’t have a voice” in management decisions, she says. (Game and Fish spokesman Renny MacKay says that the department “takes in significant amounts of public comment” through meetings and online, and that there are “definitely some ways that we [accounted for] some perspectives from people who aren’t hunters,” including prohibiting hunting within a quarter mile of a road.)

But what if non-consumptive advocates started buying hunting licenses, too? Late this spring, after a Game & Fish meeting she found particularly frustrating, Bainbridge got together with Lisa Robertson—the founder of Wyoming Untrapped, a local trapping reform advocacy group—and started combing through regulations for the grizzly hunt. “I couldn’t see where [we would be] interfering with a lawful hunt by buying a tag,” Bainbridge says. After all, she points out, people with hunting tags often choose not to pull the trigger, for all kinds of reasons. “We decided to do it.”

The more of them who entered the lottery, they figured, the better their odds of actually winning. Bainbridge and Robertson put their heads together with a few other concerned local women, each of whom brought their own particular skills: one is a well-connected philanthropist, one is a film producer with a lot of high-profile contacts, and one is an animal rights activist with a long history in the community.

The five founders of Shoot 'Em With a Camera—from left, Judy Hofflund, Deidre Bainbridge, Heather Mycoskie, Lisa Robertson, and Ann Smith.
The five founders of Shoot ‘Em With a Camera—from left, Judy Hofflund, Deidre Bainbridge, Heather Mycoskie, Lisa Robertson, and Ann Smith. COURTESY DEIDRE BAINBRIDGE

Together, they began spreading the word, via a Facebook group and an ad in a local paper. They also started a GoFundMe campaign, so that if anyone actually did win a tag, the group could cover the associated costs, which begin at $600 for a Wyoming resident and $6,000 for an out-of-stater. “I would never have put in for a tag if I didn’t know that it could be reimbursed,” says Mayor, who found the campaign when a friend shared it on Facebook. She joined due to what she calls a “visceral” opposition to hunting animals just for sport. “I’m not opposed to hunting—my husband hunts, and we usually have game meat in the freezer,” he says. “But trophy hunting has always just hit me at my core.”

Many others felt similarly. “We had momentum within 48 hours,” Bainbridge says. “Women all over the country got involved.” It drew some big names: Jane Goodall applied for a grizzly tag, as did legendary elephant conservationist Cynthia Moss. As of press time, the GoFundMe has raised over $40,000, and Robertson told theAssociated Press that of the 7,000 or so people who entered the lottery, at least 1,000 were “Shoot ‘Em With a Camera” participants.

Some of these entrants, like Bainbridge, are playing the long game, intending that this will help Wyoming photographers and sightseers have a voice in wildlife management. “Others did it to simply stop the [gun-based] hunt for 10 days,” Bainbridge says—the length of time each tag-holder can spend in the field before they have to cede their ground to the next person. (The group focused their efforts on the lottery for Areas 1-6, where up to 10 grizzlies can be killed over the course of 60 days.)

Kelly Mayor looks out over Wyoming grizzly territory, where she may soon spend ten days.
Kelly Mayor looks out over Wyoming grizzly territory, where she may soon spend ten days. LISA ROBERTSON

In late July, the group learned that they had successfully won two tags, out of the 10 available. Mayor got #2, and the other, #8, went to Thomas Mangelsen—a wildlife photographer well-known for his images of Grizzly Bear 399, who is herself famous for mothering many cubs. “It’s almost uncanny,” says Bainbridge. “We couldn’t have planned it [this way].” If it takes the other winners more than a few days each to complete their hunts, it might be possible to run out the clock and save some bears.

In general, Shoot ‘Em With a Camera participants would prefer the hunt didn’t happen at all. On August 30, there will be a hearing in Missoula, Montana, during which opponents of the grizzly bear’s new status will try to get it returned to the endangered species list. “Our bigger quest is to prevent the trophy hunting in Wyoming [altogether], because we don’t believe that the delisting is appropriate at this time,” says Bainbridge.

But if it comes down to it, Mayor is ready to go. When she first learned she had won, she figured she would sit the actual “hunt” out. “I thought … I’d pay the tag money and walk away,” she says. But getting to know the Shoot ‘Em With a Camera crew has changed her mind. “The ladies have made it into such an amazing thing,” Mayor says. They’re going to send videographers and photographers with her, and take turns spending time out there themselves. If the hunt goes through, and her number gets called, she says, “I plan on being up there for 10 days.”

She’s looking forward to it. “I’m sort of an armchair activist,” she says. “I don’t really speak up about issues, but I definitely have feelings about things like this. This is really different for me, to have a voice.”

Hunters down a dozen wolves

Wyoming hunters were successful tracking down and killing smart, stealthy wolves as the season began Sunday.

A dozen wolves were legally harvested in the first 40 hours of the three-month season. It’s a number that amounts to over a quarter of the total wolves that can be killed in the state’s managed hunt area. Wyoming Game and Fish Department carnivore manager Ken Mills attributed the considerable success to the opener falling on a weekend, winter weather pushing lots of sportsmen into the field, and also a species that may temporarily have lost its fear of mankind.

“Three years have gone by since the last hunting season,” Mills said. “In wolf generation time, it’s getting close to an entire generation of wolves. So there’s almost a whole new generation of wolves out there and they’re naive to human hunters.”

“I think they’ll learn over time,” he said. “I would expect them to adapt relatively quickly.”

Wolf hunters found swift success in Upper Green River country, where they exceeded a three-animal quota by one and triggered the closure of the zone Sunday.

Wolves were also killed Sunday and Monday around Jackson Hole. Game and Fish harvest reports showed one wolf killed in area 8, which encompasses the Leidy Highlands and has a quota of seven animals. A hunter also was successful in area 10 southeast of town, which runs from Cache Creek to past Bondurant.

In its “trophy game management area,” Game and Fish is permitting a total of 44 wolves to be killed in a season that ends Dec. 31.

Technically, there is no statewide limit on the number of wolves that can be hunted in Wyoming. That’s because of an expansive area outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where wolves are managed as a predator that can be killed by any means throughout the year. Some 17 wolves, as of Monday afternoon, had been reported killed in that zone since Wyoming gained jurisdiction over its wolf population this spring.

Wolf hunting opened with a relative bang, judging by the pace of harvest in years past.

The state’s first modern-day wolf hunt dates to 2012, a year hunters managed to kill four animals in the first 40 hours of the season, according to the Jackson Hole News&Guide archives. The next year, 2013, hunters shot three on the opener.

There’s been a wolf hunting hiatus in the Equality State ever since, owing to a 2014 court decision that fell a week before the wolf hunting season would have started. Two and a half years later, a U.S. Court of Appeals’ opinion overturned the ruling.

Game and Fish’s intent for the wolf hunt is to slightly reduce the population, last estimated at 380 statewide. A little over half those animals are believed to reside in the trophy game area that just opened to hunting. Another approximately 50 animals were thought to live in the predator zone. The balance of Wyoming’s wolves — an estimated 117 animals — live in Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation, where hunting is not allowed.

It is wolf hunters’ responsibility, Mills said, to check to make sure the hunt area they set out for is still open. Game and Fish has 12 wolf hunting units, and each closes individually as its quotas are met. Harvest reports are updated “constantly,” he said, and posted online at WGFD.wyo.gov.

Grizzly bear trophy hunt in Yellowstone area could be approved today

May 23 at 7:00 AM

A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The state’s Game and Fish Commission votes Wednesday on a grizzly bear hunt that would permit the killing of up to 22 bears. (Jim Urquhart/AP)

A Wyoming wildlife commission will vote Wednesday on whether to approve the state’s first grizzly bear hunt in more than four decades, a proposal that could lead to the killing of as many as 22 bears just one year after Yellowstone-area grizzlies were removed from the endangered species list.

Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 were federally protected in 1975, when only about 136 of the animals remained in and around Yellowstone National Park. Their numbers had rebounded to about 700 by last year, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the Yellowstone population and leave its management to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Montana in February decided against opening a trophy hunt, and Idaho, home to the smallest number of grizzlies, this month approved a fall huntof a single male bear.

Under Wyoming’s proposal, a maximum of one female or 10 male grizzlies could be killed inside the state’s section of a federally designated “demographic monitoring area” — a zone of “suitable” bear habitat where biologists track the species’ population. Another 12, male or female, could be hunted outside that area. No hunting would be allowed inside Yellowstone, nearby Grand Teton National Park or the road that connects them. The Wyoming plan also includes a no-hunt buffer zone in a region east of Grand Teton where several bears adored by photographers and tourists are known to roam and den.


Wyoming’s proposal would allow for the hunting of a maximum of one female or 10 males within Zones 1-6. Up to 12 bears, female or male, could be hunted in Zone 7. (Wyoming Fish and Game Department)

Federal biologists say limited hunting is unlikely to harm the overall grizzly population in the Yellowstone area, and Wyoming officials have described their proposal as conservative. “The question is not whether you hunt grizzly bears or not,” Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, told C-SPAN earlier this month. “The question is whether grizzly bears have grown enough in terms of population and in habitat that they can be a sustainable species. And clearly they have.”

But the hunting plan has faced heavy opposition from conservation groups and others who say it would imperil the population. More than 200 tribal nations have condemned the idea of hunting an animal they consider sacred and proposed to instead relocate grizzlies to tribal lands. More than 100 wildlife photographers wrote a letter calling on Mead to prioritize the wishes — and dollars — of tourists who come to the region in hopes of spotting “one of the most storied, beloved and photographed bear populations in the world.”

In another recent letter to the governor, 73 scientists said the hunt would recklessly endanger a vulnerable population that has lost food sources, including white bark pine, due to climate change, and limit Yellowstone bears’ ability to connect with a larger population of grizzlies in northwest Montana. (Those bears, in and around Glacier National Park, remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, although Fish and Wildlife is considering delisting them as well.)

The letter, written by the former federal grizzly bear biologist David Mattson, said allowing a dozen deaths outside the demographic monitoring area, where approximately 80 to 100 grizzlies live, would be “tantamount to planned extirpation,” in that region. Hunting, it continued, “is ethically irresponsible, unwarranted and not in the public’s interest.”


Grizzly bear No. 399 crosses a road in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming with her three cubs in 2011. The Wyoming grizzly proposal includes a no-hunt buffer zone east of Teton in an area where 399 and other famous bears are known to den. (Tom Mangelsen/AP)

Conservation organizations say hunting would add unnecessary deaths to the dozens of grizzlies killed by humans each year as the bears expand farther into developed areas.

“Grizzly bears have only just begun to recover, and hunting could sabotage that crucial process,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “People love these bears and don’t want to see them killed just so somebody can put a trophy on the wall.”

At least 56 grizzlies died within the demographic monitoring area last year, many after being hit by cars, shot in self-defense by hunters or lethally “removed” by wildlife agencies for killing livestock or seeking out human food. Of seven deaths recorded this year, four have been in Wyoming. Three were killed by state bear managers — one for breaking into a building for food, and two for “frequenting a calving area” and “bold behavior toward humans.” The fourth, an elderly bear that could not lift its hind legs, was euthanized, according to federal records.

Like conservation groups, Wyoming officials cite those numbers as talking points, but they use them instead to justify a hunt. Hunters, they say, could help weed out problem bears.

“The agency is removing every year several female and male bears for conflict reasons, and if hunting reduces that, it’s a good thing,” Brian Nesvik, chief game warden for the state Game and Fish Department, told the Casper Star-Tribune.

Wyoming’s proposal has gotten support from the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, a group that promotes hunting. Even if approved by the state game and fish commission on Wednesday, however, it could be stymied in court later this year.

Several lawsuits have challenged the delisting of Yellowstone grizzlies, and a U.S. District Court judge earlier this year ordered all parties to combine their arguments into a single set of briefs. A decision is expected this summer, before the September start of hunting seasons in Wyoming and  Idaho.

Read more:

Grizzly bears are spreading far beyond Yellowstone National Park. Can people and the bears coexist?

The true story of two fatal grizzly bear attacks that changed our relationship with wildlife

Could a bear break into that cooler? Watch these grizzlies try.

Watch a sleepy bear that just isn’t ready to stop hibernating

WY G&F proposes increase to 58 wolves in 2018 hunt

WYOMING – Wyoming Game and Fish Department is proposing an increase to the wolf mortality limit for the grey wolf 2018 hunting season. After a successful season last year where the 44-wolf quota was met, officials at WGFD would like to see the harvest targeted at 58 now, as they say the population is thriving and exceeding all criteria established to show that the species is recovered.

“The primary change for the 2018 wolf hunting season proposal is adjustment of the wolf mortality limit, which was increased to 58,” said Ken Mills, Game and Fish’s large carnivore biologist who focuses on wolves. “We calculate mortality limits annually based on the best available population and mortality data for wolves and packs present in the Wolf Trophy Game Management Area to be sure harvest levels are appropriate and ascribe to our commitment to manage for a recovered wolf population. This proposal is the result of a data-driven approach based on measured wolf population dynamics.”

The total minimum population of wolves in Wyoming living outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation at the end of 2017 was 238, with 198 in the Wolf Trophy Game Management Area. The proposed mortality limit for 2018 is expected to result in an end of year population of around 160 wolves in the trophy game area, similar to the 2017 wolf hunting season.

The draft regulation for the 2018 wolf hunting regulation is now available for public comment.

It includes the allocation of higher hunt area quotas in those areas where wolf conflicts with livestock are high or in areas where wolves are impacting big game populations.

Public meetings on these regulation changes and others will occur at the following times and locations:

  • April 30, 6pm, Sheridan, Game and Fish Office
  • May 2, 6pm, Laramie, Game and Fish Office
  • May 8, 6pm, Cody, Park County Library
  • May 9, 6pm, Casper, Game and Fish Office
  • May 10, 6pm, Dubois, Headwaters Arts & Conference Center
  • May 16, 6pm, Pinedale, Game and Fish Office
  • May 17, 6pm, Jackson, Teton County Library Auditorium
  • May 22, 6pm, Evanston, BEAR Center Pavilion
  • May 23, 6pm, Kemmerer, South Lincoln Events Center
  • May 24, 6pm, Green River, Game and Fish Office

Written comments will be accepted through 5pm June 4 at public meetings, by mailing: Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Regulations, 3030 Energy Lane, Casper, WY  82604 or online at http://wgfd.wyo.gov. Copies of the proposed regulations are available on the Game and Fish website and at the address above.

Written comments will be presented to the Game and Fish Commission prior to the public hearing at its July 10-11 meeting in Laramie at the Game and Fish Office.