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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.