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  • Louisa Willcox

Wyoming Thugs Greenlight Grizzly Bear Trophy Hunts

On January 18, Wyoming officials announced a grizzly bear trophy hunt that could begin this fall. State officials said that a plan with details of the hunt, including hunt areas and season lengths, would be released for public comment in February (link).

Thus far, Wyoming is the only state in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) to pursue a sport hunt for grizzly bears. Yellowstone’s grizzlies have not been hunted for over 40 years, after being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ban on hunting grizzly bears is seen by experts as a major reason why the status of Yellowstone’s imperiled grizzly bears improved under ESA protections.

Consequences of Hunting Yellowstone’s Grizzlies

Scientists know a lot about the negative and often unintended consequences of hunting grizzly bears. Their findings are consistent no matter where research on bear hunting has been conducted -- Canada, Sweden, Romania or in the US. Their major conclusion: hunting grizzlies often paradoxically increases conflicts with people and livestock. The reason is that trophy hunting is biased towards killing large male grizzlies. Hunting large males disrupts the social order of bear populations, almost invariably resulting in more cub-killing by males, disruption of foraging by females, as well as unexpected and problematic population declines (see this paper).

In the case of Yellowstone, the hunt would target male grizzlies, while prohibiting the hunting of females with young. (Of course, grizzly bear hunting is banned from Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks).

Paradoxically, hunting will likely exacerbate rather than ameliorate escalating depredation of livestock by grizzlies. Adolescent males, which are often the main depredators, tend to gravitate to areas where the dominant resident males have been killed by people. And, as with their human counterparts, adolescent male bears are notoriously prone to push human boundaries.

A 2017 Memorandum of Agreement among Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho outlines the basic approach to hunting grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone. Grizzly bear expert Dr. David Mattson submitted a thorough critique of this MOA as part of two letters he submitted last year commenting on the Service’s draft delisting rule (see this blog). He concludes that an unanticipated consequence of the proposed hunt is the probable overkill of male grizzlies. Mattson showed that within 8 years after delisting, implementation of the MOA would lead, in theory, to the near extermination of male bears outside the National Parks (link). By adding significant numbers of bear deaths to the currently excessive and unsustainable levels, hunting once again endanger Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

One reason often given for hunting grizzlies is that bears would thereby become warier and people would thus be safer. But there is no evidence to support this claim (see this blog). In contrast to more social animals such as wolves, grizzlies tend to be loners except during breeding season or when females have cubs by their side. Lone bears are more likely to take to the grave whatever lessons they could have learned from being shot at.

Killing Celebrity Grizzlies, Including Matron 399

Grizzlies that frequent roadsides will be especially vulnerable to the upcoming hunts. Females that range near highways typically see people, not as threats, but as allies against male bears. The famous Jackson-area matron, Number 399, is clearly more afraid of male bears that can kill cubs than she is of people. Females such as 399 have taken a gamble on people in their efforts to keep cubs safe from predatory males.

Until now, people have been upholding their end of the bargain. And, Grand Teton Park has done a stellar job ensuring that visitors behave appropriately around roadside bears. This negotiated peace has helped Jackson’s rock star grizzlies flourish, while giving joy to countless park visitors and local residents. But the peace will be shattered when bear hunters take to the field.

Grizzly 399 and other well-known well-loved bears den outside of National Parks on National Forest lands where they will be exposed to hunting. These bears will probably be among the first gunned down, whether out of convenience or maliciousness on the part of involved hunters and guides. Already some reprobate outfitters have threatened to kill Grizzly 399 (link), whose den is not too hard to find.

In comments last year on the federal decision to remove federal protections for Yellowstone grizzlies (“delist”) and thereby allow hunting, many people raised concerns about the fate of Grizzly 399 and her family if grizzlies are hunted. In fact, more than 99% of the roughly 850,000 comments submitted on the draft delisting proposal opposed delisting and sport hunting bears (link).

But US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the States blew off the public to serve a minority of special interests, including NRA and Safari Club, as well as the agriculture and energy industries. They also ignored the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, which passed a resolution opposing trophy hunting grizzly bears in Jackson Hole because of the economic value of these bears (link).

There is no doubt that the economic engines currently driving communities around Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks are no longer hunting or extractive industries such as logging and ranching, but tourism and in-migration to the region because of its clean air and water, and magnificent scenery and watchable wildlife. In fact, tourism generates over 680 million dollars annually in the local communities around Yellowstone Park (link). But the region’s politics do not yet reflect these facts.

Wyoming’s Thuggish Approach to Grizzlies, Other Large Carnivores

Wyoming perfectly illustrates the stark contrast between the politics of yesteryear and the current reality that charismatic non-dead wildlife drives the region’s economy. Wyoming officials are unambiguously thuggish in their unreasoned hostility towards large carnivores generally and grizzly bears specifically (link).

The etymology of the 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, control, and a blatant contempt for civility, democratic principles, and anyone who gets in the way of profit and the ideology of exploitation as defined by ranchers, executives of energy corporations and the NRA/Safari Club.

Hunters play a dominant role in wildlife management, partly because virtually all funding comes from sales of hunting and fishing licenses or from taxes levied on sales of arms and ammunition. Hunters tend to be fiercely protective of their privileged status, which has increasingly come under attack by those who are disenfranchised: women, urban dwellers, non-Caucasians, and the educated (link).

In the case of grizzly bear management, we are talking about a minority of mostly rich, politically connected white guys who want to kill grizzlies to feed their ego, rid themselves of an inconvenience, or make an ideological point. Needless-to-say, such men do not see grizzlies as sentient beings deserving of compassion. They also tend to see—without scientific justification—grizzlies as competitors for opportunities to kill large herbivores with enlarged sex-linked organs; i.e., bull elk (link). So, the fewer bears, the better.

Not surprisingly, Wyoming, along with Idaho and Montana, have barred the National Park Service (NPS) from participating in the processes of setting seasons for hunting grizzlies as a finger in the eye of the federal government and a symbolic middle finger to the NPS’ preservation philosophy. Over the last few years, NPS officials, including Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, have raised concerns about the adverse impact of grizzly bear hunting on park bears (link). As soon as the Trump administration took over, the Park Service was silenced, raising this question: who is more thuggish, Wyoming or Trump?

Hunting Grizzlies Because “We Hunt Everything Else in Wyoming”

Last week, Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association President Jeff Smith supported the State’s proposal to hunt grizzly bears, saying: “We are dang sure supportive of hunting them, because we hunt everything else in Wyoming (link).”

Smith’s view is wholeheartedly endorsed by Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF) officials. In fact, a year ago, at a meeting of grizzly bear managers, WGF Director Scott Talbott said something similar: “We just need to get grizzly bears delisted so we can manage them like every other species in the state, with a hunting season.”

Managing grizzlies like other Wyoming wildlife is, in fact, the problem. A case in point is the state’s management of wolves, which were delisted, for the third time, last year.

Throwing Wyoming Wolves Under the Bus: Next Up, Grizzlies

Wyoming officials have designated wolves outside Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks as varmints in over 90% of the state, allowing anybody to kill wolves by almost any means at any time. In 1995 and 1996 wolves were 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, that is, before wolves were turned over to the tender mercies of the states (see this paper by Scott Creel).

In 2017, wolves were delisted in Wyoming after a drawn-out legal battle. Hunters killed 32 wolves last fall (link), on top of the 113 wolves killed because they were implicated in livestock conflicts (link), totaling nearly half of the wolf population in Wyoming. The State is well on its way to reducing the population to its target of 160 animals—a thuggish reprise of a thuggish and brutal past.

Wyoming seems to be enacting a replay with grizzly bears. Officials in Wyoming, in fact, are leading the charge among northern Rocky Mountains states in a bid to reduce, not merely maintain, the number of grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Killing grizzlies is the only activity that Wyoming commits to pursuing in its recently revised Wyoming Grizzly Bear plan. The laudable language in the plan about coexistence and reducing human-bear conflicts should not lend comfort, because there is no funding to support such efforts and no enforceable standards requiring the state to do anything to make peace with grizzlies (link). And, the state’s grizzly bear plan imitates its wolf plan in allowing a purge of all animals outside an artificially drawn boundary line.

Free Fire Zone for Grizzly Bears?

Wyoming has, in fact, designated a veritable free fire zone for grizzlies outside the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA). The DMA is a more-or-less arbitrarily delineated area within which bears will be counted during the next five years to gauge whether recovery targets are being met after delisting. This is a huge problem, because the DMA excludes a large portion of occupied grizzly bear habitat along with important habitats crucial to supporting grizzly bears in the wake of losing essential natural foods to the twin malignancies of climate warming and invasive species. Roughly 50% of the ecosystem’s whitebark pine, 90% of its cutthroat trout, and 70% of its elk have disappeared in just a few decades. (link).

Of Racism and Oppression

Wyoming has not just ignored science, it has also indulged in blatant racism. State officials have summarily dismissed the interests of Native Peoples expressed in numerous requests by numerous Tribes to be consulted or otherwise specifically involved in management of grizzly bears both before and after delisting.

A 2015 incident involving the State’s lead grizzly bear manager is illustrative. As Chair of an interagency managers’ meeting in Cody, a gum-chewing thuggish Brian Nesvik manhandled James Walks Along, Historic Preservation Officer of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, who, at the request of the Tribe’s President, attempted to present the views of the Northern Cheyenne on grizzly bears. (The video can be viewed here). The State has yet to apologize for the insult, despite repeated requests to Governor Matt Mead, who is a staunch supporter of delisting.

Another incident occurred less than a year later. In a 2016 open house on grizzly bear management convened by State managers, a thuggish Cody resident loudly proclaimed: “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.” State officials seemed to embrace the resulting chorus of clapping and laughing from the audience. Another well-received commenter promised a return to “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut-up” if grizzly bears were not delisted.

Civility itself appeared endangered that night, when the microphones were dominated by racist bullies threatening violence to bears and people alike. Meanwhile, those in attendance who sympathized with bears and valued civility were intimidated into silence, which was the perhaps the intended affect.

Wyoming officials have attempted to gloss over their racist behavior with repeated, but false, claims of coordination and collaboration with the Tribes. A widespread government failure to coordinate and consult with Tribes is, in fact, at the root of legal challenges to the decision to delist grizzly bears last year. Tribes ranging from Canada to Mexico, including the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho, who currently accommodate grizzlies on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, are fiercely opposed to delisting (link). In fact, so far 177 Tribes have signed a treaty to preserve the grizzly bear and tribal sovereignty, The Grizzly: a Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration. This is now the most signed tribal treaty in history (link).

Concerns about the despotic arrangements for managing grizzly bears prompted Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) to introduce the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act (H.R. 3894) last fall (link). This bill would ensure that grizzly bears are permanently protected for their ecological and cultural value, and guarantee that Tribes have a role in conserving and managing the species. But, of course, the racist thuggish Republicans in charge of Congress will ensure that this bill never passes on their watch.

Thuggery is Not Destiny: State Wildlife Management Reform is Possible

Through legislation, Congressman Grijalva aims to give Tribes a long overdue voice in grizzly bear management. It is important to note that during the last 40 years, grizzly bears and the broader 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. In the absence of other statutes to empower national constituents, the ESA has served a particularly critical role of democratizing the decision-making.

But 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, Montana and Idaho. Other states have succeeded -- even states such as Missouri and Arkansas that are much more financially strapped.

State wildlife management reform is not rocket science. It involves relatively straight-forward changes such as the system of financial incentives and disincentives, agency culture, and approaches to public involvement (link).

Wyoming and other western states must be made accountable to a broader public that increasingly consists of wildlife watchers, Tribes, and the new West’s modem cowboys and retirees, rather than trophy hunters and 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…

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