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  • Louisa Willcox

Why Wyoming's Thugs Should Not Be Trusted With Our Grizzly Bears

This week, Wyoming held a rash of hearings on the state’s plan to manage grizzly bears if and when federal protections are removed later this year. In the pro-bear bastion around Jackson, where celebrity grizzly bears like 399 and her family make their homes, the majority of testimony expressed concerns about trophy hunting, which would likely result in the killing of these tolerant bears (link).

True to its redneck heritage, many commenters from Cody – more typical of views across the state -- held to more pro-hunting and even racist themes. The last comment of the evening provoked clapping and laughing with this: “If we aren’t going to control these bears, we might as well give the land back to the Indians and sail back across the ocean.” (link). Another commenter promised a return to “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut-up” behaviors if grizzly bears are not delisted (link).

The democratic qualities of rationality and civility themselves appeared endangered that night, when the mics were dominated by bullies, while seats were filled in silence with the likes of shocked science teachers and intimidated citizens.

The hearings in Cody on delisting grizzly bears and wolves roughly 10 years earlier were eerily similar. Wyoming officials fed the frenzy with their tacit approval of the bad actors. Indeed, the behaviors of these self-same officials could be called thuggish.

The etymology of word “thug” is interesting and relevant here. The original “thags” were devotees of the goddess Kali who waylaid and murdered travelers in northern Indian up through the mid-1800’s, when they were suppressed by the British.

Wyoming Game and Fish is a devotee of a different yet related ethos that has proven no less deadly to people and animals. It sails under the colors of domination, use, and a blatant contempt for civility, democratic principles, and anyone who get in the way of profit – today, defined mostly by agriculture and energy corporations.

In making sense of Wyoming’s grizzly bear plan, it is as important to understand the philosophy of the agency, its past shenanigans, as well as the substance of the plan itself -- which is as thin as shit from cows on spring grass. This matters, because Wyoming has the lions’ share of the grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone.

Wyoming’s Plan is all About Hunting and Killing More Bears

So longstanding is the primary purpose of Wyoming’s plan -- hunting and killing grizzly bears – that the language adopted in the state’s grizzly plan is as jarring as it is disingenuous. “Wyoming may hunt grizzly bears.” As if state officials have not yet made up their minds, or are trying to disguise their root thuggishness.

At least in the 2002 plan (now being revised), Wyoming officials were honest enough to admit what they were after -- hunting grizzlies and facilitating killing to reduce bear numbers and thereby presumably reduce conflicts in places where the states does not want bears. This includes landscapes with suitable habitat, like the Wind River, Wyoming, Salt River and Snake River Ranges, and the Upper Green River area, where cattlemen are complaining ever more loudly about grizzly depredations on typically ill-managed livestock.

On countless occasions, Wyoming officials have stated that they can’t manage grizzly bears without hunting them. At the most recent Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee Meeting, Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF) Director Scott Talbott remarked, “We just need to get grizzly bears delisted so we can manage them like every other species in the state, with a hunting season.”

To underscore the point, a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), an appendix to the plan, outlines how Wyoming, Idaho and Montana will divvy up the bear hunt after delisting. The states’ calculations seem to have been done in the absence of any scientific advice, and are at odds with what is in the federal grizzly bear delisting rule. Taken at face value, the MOA allows up to 72 bears to be hunted annually (link) -- a recipe for disaster. And this, without accounting for unreported but predictable grizzly bear deaths which can increase the number of known reported deaths by two-thirds more, according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

As in its treatment of wolves, Wyoming seems to be designating a “grizzly free fire zone” outside the “Demographic Monitoring Area,” (and even perhaps outside the Primary Conservation Area) where bear numbers will be counted to gauge whether recovery targets are being met after delisting. This is a huge problem, as these lands include important wildlands and grizzly bear foods, which are increasingly crucial for grizzly bears in the wake of the recent loss of some essential foods, such as roughly 50% of the ecosystem’s whitebark pine, 90% of its cutthroat trout, and 70% of its elk, all in roughly 15 years (link).

Exacerbating the problem, Wyoming establishes a policy in the plan to preemptively move or kill bears before they have caused conflicts. This provision removes incentives for landowners or ranchers to make adjustments to accommodate bears. Further, once the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are removed, the penalties for illegally killing a grizzly bear are paltry under state law compared to the ESA – and thus hardly constitute a significant deterrent to poaching.

In its preemptive strike policy and other parts of the plan, Wyoming plan fails to give a break to female grizzlies, which are the most important component of the population. Females matter more than males do because they are the reproductive bottleneck of any wildlife population. With such low reproductive rates, every female grizzly bear is vital to the biological recovery of the population -- but not, apparently, to Wyoming.

And, don’t be fooled by some nice language in the plan about protecting habitat: Wyoming has zero authority over managing habitat on public lands. Zip. Nada.

Top to bottom, Wyoming’s plan is about death and domination. Of course Wyoming does have the authority to lessen people’s impact, through such steps as requiring hunters to carry bear pepper spray. This makes sense given that hunter-caused bear mortality has been going through the roof in the last decade (link) – but this would demand WGF and its primary traditional constituency actually DO something proactive and life-affirming. And that would be contrary to the ethos of thuggism.

Some Past Wyoming Grizzly Shenanigans

Let’s take a closer look at the spirit of some Christmases past in Wyoming. And then make up your mind about whether Wyoming should be entrusted with the primary authority for managing such a large portion of Yellowstone’s world-class grizzly bears.

Throwing Wyoming Wolves Under the Bus – Next Up, Grizzlies

In 2011, Wyoming officials designated wolves outside Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks as a varmints in over 90% of the state, allowing anybody to kill wolves by almost any means at any time. In 1995 and 1996 wolves had been restored to Yellowstone, where they had been extirpated as a result of human persecution. The recovery of wolves in Yellowstone is considered one of the greatest conservation success stories of the century… prior to being turned over to a veritable slaughter under auspices of state management (see this paper by Scott Creel).

Fortunately, in 2014, a federal judge found Wyoming’s wolf designation illegal and relisted the state’s wolves, which remain protected today.

WGF seems to be enacting a replay with grizzly bears. (I say “seem” because the language is very unclear.) The laudable language in the plan about coexistence and reducing human-bear conflicts should not lend comfort, because there are no standards requiring the state to do anything to make peace with, rather than kill bears. In fact, the plan includes full allowance for making all areas outside the Demographic Monitoring Area, and perhaps the Primary Conservation Area, a free fire zone targeting grizzlies.

Grizzlies like Celebrity 399 and Her Clan Will Almost Certainly Be Killed

Celebrity grizzly bears such as 399 and her clan are not only important to the health of the population, they give joy to countless visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks.

In spite of this, Wyoming officials have made it clear they will not give these bears a break after delisting. “Habituation towards people and the roadside bear situation, it’s not something that we’re supportive of,” said Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF) large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson (link). It is important to note that “habituation,” as framed by state officials, is considered a sin even if the bear is neither conditioned to getting food from people nor aggressive.

Demonstrating the state ethos of domination over wildlife, managers such as Thompson appear uncomfortable with any intimate relationship between people and wild animals. If nothing else, when people care about individual bears it becomes more difficult for managers to dispose of them as expendable objects, whether under the guise of sport hunting or resolving conflicts with humans.

Emblematic of Thompson’s thuggish views, he oversaw the execution of one of 399’s offspring on the basis of a fabricated rationale and a botched management lead-up by WGF (link).

Such is likely to be the norm after delisting. Further, because 399 and her cubs den outside the Grand Teton Park (as do tolerant Yellowstone Park bears) on national forest lands, there is a good chance that these bears will be killed by hunters. Already, outfitters have threatened to kill the much-beloved roadside bears of our National Parks (link), whose dens are not too hard to find.

Concern about Grand Teton’s bears and public backlash if they are killed drove the Superintendents of Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks, David Vela and Dan Wenk, to protest being shut out of the states’ conversation regarding post-delisting trophy hunting (link). Needless-to-say, the thugs in the state have done nothing to accommodate the Parks’ concerns.

Tromping on the Public Trust

WGF officials frequently go beyond ignoring other agencies such as the National Park Service to dismissing the public at large. States have a trust responsibility to manage public resources, including wildlife, for the benefit of the public who own them. Yet, WGF officials have consistently demonstrated total disregard for public sentiment if it does not align with their pro-industry, pro-hunting ideology.

Take what happened with Wyoming’s 2001 draft grizzly bear plan, developed with the advice of a multi-interest stakeholders group. The plan would have allowed grizzly bears to occupy habitat outside the Primary Conservation Area, including lands that grizzlies were beginning to recolonize, such as the Wind River mountains.

Over 95% of those who submitted comments on the draft grizzly bear plan requested more protections for grizzlies and bears in more places (link). In a telephone survey of public opinion conducted by WGF, the majority of respondents said that grizzly bears should be allowed to occupy more extensive areas in Greater Yellowstone (link).

In spite of all this, a single WGF commissioner, rancher Les Henderson, forced WGF staff behind closed doors to gut the plan (link). Most of the Wind River and all the Wyoming Range were excised from the draft plan as “unacceptable bear habitat” because of the presence of domestic sheep (link). WGF presented the revised plan in a meeting where the public was prohibited from speaking (link). Again, the thugs of WGF forced the views of a minority of industry interests on the majority of the public who supported a bigger vision for grizzly bear recovery.

WGF and Racism

Last year, WGF’s longstanding disregard for Indians became impossible to ignore. On March 30, 2015, Brian Nesvik of WGF chaired an Interagency Grizzly Bear Managers meeting in Cody, where he manhandled James Walks Along, Historic Preservation Officer of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, who was attempting to present the views of the Tribe on grizzly bears, and ordered the mic unplugged. (The video can be viewed here). The state has yet to apologize for the insult.

Moreover, Wyoming’s repeated claims of coordination and collaboration with the Tribes in Wyoming on grizzly bear management are lies. In reality, around 50 Tribes, including the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho who currently accommodate some of Yellowstone’s grizzlies on the Wind River Indian Reservation, are fiercely opposed to delisting (link). To the Tribes, no government agency better embodies colonial oppressors than does WGF. (Wyoming's Grizzly Harvest by R. Bear Stands Last is a must read on the topic, here).

WGF and Sexism

Wyoming is the thuggish old West when it comes to women too. I have been laughed at and belittled more times than I can count by WGF commissioners and employees. I was impressed with a representative of the mining industry who got upset not long ago when WGF employees sat in the back row and rolled their eyes at a female colleague who testified in support of protecting bears at a commission meeting. He complained to the commission about the mean and disrespectful behavior he had witnessed. If everybody did that, we might train Wyoming’s leaders to behave civilly.

In my 30 plus years of advocacy, one of my toughest challenges was to ask my organizations’ members to speak for wildlife at hearings in places like Cody. The bullies and their catcalls can be downright terrifying. Not to mention the despair in knowing that democracy and civility don’t matter to the Wyoming officials who chair these meetings and encourage the thugs.

Giving Counties More Room for Crazy

As it turns out, some of Wyoming’s county commissioners are probably the most rabid when it comes to grizzly bears. This is why the Endangered Species Act is so important, as perhaps the only way of containing truly regressive anti-endangered species polices enacted at the local level by some county commissions.

A favorite pastime in some Wyoming counties seems to be passing anti-grizzly bear resolutions, which the state does not oppose. The most recent was passed in Park County, Wyoming, in October, 2015 (link). But there are others on the books, passed by Fremont, Sublette, and Lincoln Counties, that outright ban grizzly bears (link).

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who is leading the Western Governors Association’s bid to gut the Endangered Species Act, has positioned the counties to be at forefront of management–in other words, legalizing the management of endangered species by thugs.

Last November, grizzly delisting was one of Mead’s featured “problems” at a staged hearing in Cody (link). Interestingly enough, giving counties more authority will ensure that industry and agriculture prevails over broader public concerns for wildlife at the same time that the economy around Yellowstone is shown to increasingly depend on the health of the ecosystem and its wildlife.

Needless-to-say, the counties do not have much in the way of professional capability. Which get me to…

State Professional Managers?

In promoting its delisting agenda, Wyoming uses the mantra: “trust us, we are the professionals.” Yet, in 2014, a well-publicized fiasco that ended in the state’s killing of a celebrity grizzly bear named and numbered 760 (grandson of 399) illuminated just how unprofessional an agency WGF is. On October 27, WGF large carnivore specialist Luke Ellesbury trapped 760, who was later killed (link). Just days before, Ellesbury had been convicted of killing a threatened grizzly bear he had watched for many minutes and then mistook for a black bear, which he then killed by illegally shooting across a public road. This man responsible for education and outreach for the state of Wyoming could not tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly, with time on his hands to watch. Nor could he refrain from illegally shooting across a road. He kept his job.

We are supposed to trust these guys?


Wyoming makes a big deal about its plan being adaptive -- that is, the state will make changes as circumstances change. To assure us, Wyoming says it will revise the plan every 5 years. Yet, this is the first revision of a plan that was finalized in 2002 – and it made the same claims to adaptiveness back then.

The only reason state officials updated it is to get the federal government to delist bears. That is supposed to assure us that the state will be responsive to change going forward?

Thuggishness is Not Destiny: State Wildlife Management Reform is Possible

These incidents prove WGF to be antidemocratic, narrow-minded, brutish, petty and prejudiced. Bears, Indians, women, the public who prefer wildlife alive, wild and not farmed - - we all are relegated to the back of Wyoming’s bus. Over the last 40 years, grizzly bears and the interests of the public who cares about them have been protected by the ESA, which has tempered the behavior of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana officials to some extent. Importantly, the ESA has empowered a national constituency in the decision process.

After delisting, all bets are off. Grizzly bears face a free fire zone, a hunt and management by thugs. And if you don’t live within the boundaries of Wyoming, Idaho, or Montana, you simply won’t matter to the debate.

For now, the prudent course is to keep grizzly bears federally protected. In the long run, it is possible to improve the practice of state wildlife management in Wyoming. Other states have succeeded -- even much more financially strapped states such as Missouri and Arkansas.

Reform is not rocket science. Rather it involves changing the system of financial incentives and disincentives, and the decision-making processes and cultural precepts of the agency (link).

WGF must be made accountable to a broader public that increasingly consists of wildlife watchers, the new West’s modem cowboys, rather than the traditional Lords of the energy and agriculture Yesteryear. Said another way, by answering to a different deity -- perhaps Gaia or the sacred Bear Spirit (which is what the Tribes have been talking about for ages) – the thugs of Wyoming won’t be thugs anymore…

In the meantime…

Get Your Comments In

After all I’ve said, believe it or not I am asking you to send Wyoming your thoughts about their plan. Why? To show on a national scale that people care about grizzly bears and what is wrong in Wyoming. Because this battle is going to be fought on a bigger stage, and what is said to the state will matter there.

The deadline is 5 pm on April 14th, you can submit them by connecting here:

The best comments I have seen are by the good folks at Wyoming Wildlife Advocates (link).

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