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  • Louisa Willcox

New Information on 2017 Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Deaths Should Nix Trophy Hunting in Core Habitat

Wyoming officials are barging ahead with a September hunt of Yellowstone grizzly bears despite new information about bear deaths that shows that no hunting should occur this year. This according to protocols adopted by the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho when 2017 federal endangered species protections were removed (“delisting”). The considerable confusion among state and federal officials about how the 2017 death of a radio-collared female and two cubs of the year will be treated and, from that, implications for how many bears can be hunted, additionally highlights how opaque, disjointed, and risky bear management has become less than one year following delisting.

In a June 12 conversation, summarized below, Dan Thompson, large carnivore specialist with Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF), emphasized the extent to which the state is recklessly bent on reducing bear numbers now that grizzlies are delisted, regardless of protocols or data. In short, Wyoming has adopted anything but a precautionary approach, and, moreover, threatens grizzly bears in this ecosystem with a management ideology hostile to carnivores and slave to the interests of trophy hunters.

The explicit goal of WGF is, in fact, to reduce the size of the grizzly bear population within core habitat and even extirpate bears from certain areas. Even more egregiously, their adopted method for managing mortality deliberately kills male bears at a grossly unsustainable rate. At every turn, including in treatment of the additional 2017 female death, Wyoming chooses to be cavalier rather than cautious when faced with uncertainty, new information, or options for interpreting protocols.

If the state had adopted a precautionary approach in its analysis of this female death and tallied it correctly (more on this later), Wyoming would allow no hunting this fall inside core bear habitat, in what is known as the “Demographic Monitoring Area.” 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.

Getting the Skinny from Wyoming: A Bear of a Job

Wyoming officials seemed to try their best to avoid talking to me about this matter. After 8 phone calls to various offices around the state, I was only allowed to talk to WGF’s Dan Thompson, in the presence of an agency media flak. (Another 4 subsequent calls to obtain further clarification on some points were not returned).

“I know where you are going with this…” Dan said defensively early in our conversation, before I had fully aired my questions. Dismissing questions before even fully hearing them may be increasingly typical of ‘public servants’ these days, but that does not mean it is acceptable. Moreover, we can expect more of the same, if not worse, from Wyoming officials once federal oversight ends four years from now.

“Yes, we know about this bear, but we had already had the quotas set up for this fall in April before it was reported,” Dan said. But what about adaptive management, which is one of the centerpieces of Wyoming's plan? “It was too late to make changes.” Really? The state made plans for the hunt in April, licenses don’t sell till July, and the season does not open till September…plenty of time for changes, especially given the importance of live Yellowstone’s grizzlies to people around the world.

“We will deal with this issue later, before setting up the hunt for 2019.” How? Will the death be counted as a 2018 death, as was suggested, when calculating the sport hunt quota for 2019, even though such an approach violates adopted protocols, as well as the standards long used by the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST)? Does this mean that Wyoming plans, in the future, to do anything convenient to their purpose, despite protocols and plans -- including keeping a different set of books on mortalities than the federal government, long the official keepers of dead bear data?

Interestingly, this bear was reported dead at roughly the same time (or before) the WGF Commission met in Lander, on May 23, to approve the hunt that the agency has long craved. This was right around the time too when Wyoming had been embarrassed into reducing the hunt by one female, after attempting to appropriate one of Montana’s allocated kills for sport hunting purposes.

Dan adamantly maintained that even considering this death, Wyoming could still hunt one female. When I asked him about his math, He said, curtly: “Only if I can see yours.” Another example of how Wyoming wildlife managers routinely treat the public, especially anyone who asks inconvenient questions.

What the 2017 Death of an Additional Female Means

In May of this year, the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) posted to its online database the death of the female grizzly and her two cubs of the year (listed as numbers 5-7) that had occurred during 2017 inside Montana’s portion of the DMA. These deaths are under investigation, which means they were killed under suspicious circumstances. During recent years such circumstances have increasingly involved elk hunters responding to a close encounter with a grizzly or simply to a bear challenging possession of a hunter’s recent kill. Malicious killing is also a possibility. As is typical, though, the government will not release details until the investigation is done, which sometimes, in the worst cases involving poaching, entails years.

The death was apparently not detected nor reported until this spring, which is highly unusual for the death of a radio-collared female with cubs of the year. In over 30 years of monitoring reported grizzly bear fatalities, I have never before witnessed such a long delay in tallying the death of a female with cubs, especially one with a radio-collar: officials should have known of her death immediately, because of her collar's change to a mortality signal, unless there was malicious intent to hide her and/or her collar.

The death of reproductive females should be seen as a major problem for managers simply because such individuals determine the trajectory and ultimate fate of grizzly bear populations. And, since grizzly bears have the lowest reproductive rate of any North American mammal barring polar bears, every mother bear matters. Scientists and government officials have recognized this fact in establishing mortality limits for reproductive females that they loudly claim to be conservative. Sustained violation of these limits would presumably lead to an official review of the Yellowstone population’s status by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which could, in turn, lead to reinstatement of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections.

There are numerous cases where the death of an unmarked lone bear is not detected or reported during the year it occurred. Occasionally, several years may transpire. Even so, any detection is usually soon added to the online database maintained by the IGBST. Eventually, these additions are added to year-specific tallies in corrections that are a routine part of the IGBST’s official Annual Reports.

But the problem here is this: under the Memorandum-of-Agreement (MOA) governing post-delisting management of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, the three involved states, including Wyoming, calculate numbers available for sport hunting during the current year based on the previous year’s mortality. More specifically, the estimate of TOTAL sex-specific mortality for the previous year is subtracted from total sex-specific allowable mortality for the current year to produce a remainder that is available for trophy hunting.

In other words, the estimate of total mortality for 2017 directly determines the number of bears available for sport hunting during 2018. Although some scientists consider this approach to be flawed for all sorts of reasons (see a complete critique here and here and another here), and lawyers have contested the method in their legal challenges to removal of ESA protections, these are the rules that currently apply.

And math is math, and until proven otherwise, one plus one equals two. Here is what the state’s formula to calculate mortality shows. While the total number of adult females available for sport hunting by all three regional states would drop from 2.5 to 1.5, as Dan Thompson admitted, Wyoming’s 58% portion also correspondingly would drop from 1.5 to about 0.8. The fact that Wyoming’s portion dropped below ‘1’ (0.8 of a bear) raises the question of whether under such circumstances you round up or down; and, this, even considering that the goal is from the start to reduce the population. Prudence and caution would obviously recommend rounding down to ‘0’ rather than up to ‘1’. Wyoming clearly intends to round up.

It is ridiculous to pretend that a part of a bear constitutes a whole bear. Adopting Wyoming’s approach, they could chop off your arms and legs, maybe cut out a few organs, and still count you as a whole person. Such grizzly charades underscore, yet again, why Wyoming, Idaho and Montana should not have primary management over any grizzly bear population. The point here is that the states don’t want to keep bears whole: they want hunters, their main constituency, to be able to hang their body parts, mostly heads and pelts, on walls.

Even if Wyoming conceded that the 2017 death should be accounted for in setting 2018 hunt quotas for females, and further agreed that no females should be killed inside the DMA, there are serious problems with a hunt that targets only males. This adds another layer of risk because it is nearly impossible to distinguish a female with no cubs by her side from a male bear, and females are thus likely to be killed accidentally. Furthermore, the policy allowing unsustainable killing of males could mean that male bears are functionally extirpated over time outside Yellowstone Park.

If conserving grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem were truly a priority, Wyoming would not allow hunting in the DMA, let alone the rest of the ecosystem, especially at a time when human-caused mortality has been skyrocketing as a result of a recent dramatic shift in grizzly bears diets towards eating more human-associated and conflict-inducing meat.

Wyoming’s management approach is especially important given that this state has the lion’s share of grizzly bears and grizzly bear habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem, including lands outside the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA). These extralimital habitats have become increasingly important as bears expand outward in search of foods to replace those lost to the twin malignancies of climate warming and invasive species. Bark beetles and blister rust have killed more than 50% of the ecosystem’s whitebark pine; invasive lake trout and deteriorating hydrologic conditions have eliminated over 90% of Yellowstone Lake’s cutthroat trout; and a combination of sport hunting, worsening forage conditions, and natural predation have driven a 70% decline in elk populations; all within just a few decades.

But instead of being protected, lands outside the DMA have been designated a de facto “Slaughter Zone” by Wyoming within which essentially unlimited killing is allowed—this on top of the explicit state goal of reducing the size of Wyoming’s portion of the population, even inside the DMA.

More Grizzly Mischief

In addition to failing to prudently account for the recently reported 2017 female death, Wyoming had also previously tried to inflate its portion of females available for sport hunting by appropriating Montana’s allocation after that state announced it would not proceed with a hunt this year — unlike Wyoming and Idaho. When Montana officials and others verified that the MOA does not allow states to “trade” allowable bear deaths, Wyoming, embarrassed, was forced to reduce the number of females that could be killed in this fall’s planned hunt from two bears to one. Importantly, Wyoming’s attempted sleight of hand would not have come to light had it not been for citizen watchdogs.

As I noted earlier, Wyoming’s shenanigans came to light at roughly the same time as the 2017 death of the grizzly bear family, when Wyoming’s Game and Fish Commission was scheduled to approve the grizzly bear hunt. To be forced to reduce the hunt by one female was embarrassing enough, but to have to admit that no hunting of females would be allowed in the DMA was, perhaps, too much to serve up to a Commission bent on hunting grizzlies this fall, whatever the political, legal, and biological consequences.

The Promise of More Games with Dead Bears

In recent official correspondence from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, it is clear that the state intends to play yet more games in the foreseeable future to downplay grizzly bear deaths. The agency claimed that young cubs of the year orphaned as early as May would survive. This, it suggested, would likely be the case for four cubs whose mothers had been killed in separate incidents near Cody and New Fork Lakes in the Wind River Mountains during spring of 2018.

This defies all that is scientifically known about prospects for cub survival. Without mom, cubs of the year are likely to be goners – eaten by other bears, wolves, lions, or killed in accidents. Odds of survival versus death reach parity only at around 6 months of age, which, given a birth day in February, is only attained by around August.

Although Wyoming Game and Fish officials went on to disingenuously add that Wyoming would count them as dead according to a federally-mandated protocol, all bets are off after federal oversight of state management ends four years from now. It is virtually guaranteed that Wyoming will truly run amuk once the minimal constraint and transparency introduced by federal oversight is gone.

What can be done to ensure that the public has meaningful input in policies that are even now ad hoc and obtuse?

The Root Problem of Transparency

In grade school, I was taught that our democratic society depends on citizen access to good information to make good choices. That in order for journalists and citizens to serve their function as watchdogs, government must be transparent, both in terms of information used and in processes employed to reach decisions. And that science involves a healthy debate about what conclusions are best supported by the data at hand.

I was also taught that totalitarian regimes are obsessed with controlling the flow of information. So, I was puzzled to discover how tightly controlled information about grizzly bears was, and still is, by managers, and how opaque decision processes are, especially after delisting.

Why is it that I am the first to flag this new problem of misallocation and mis-adjudication of the last fall’s newly reported dead family group? It is not because I am smarter than the average bear. I have had many conversations with reporters who are similarly confused about the numbers, what they mean, and the contradictory statements of various agency staff. This confusion is reflected in their stories, which handicaps readers trying to make informed choices about policies.

The point is that it should not be up to people such as me to ferret out these problems. It is the government’s job to be transparent, respectful, solicitous of informed input, and accountable to abide by its own policies and protocols. Further, public processes must be more than rudimentary dog-and-pony shows by government officials, which often end up being divisive, polarizing, unduly simplifying, and little more than propaganda.

A Solution: Reforming State Wildlife Management

There is no mandate for Wyoming officials to behave in this cavalier way. They can choose whether to behave like responsible public servants…or not. It is possible to improve the practice of state wildlife management even in the benighted state of Wyoming, as well as elsewhere in the Northern Rockies. Other states have reformed how they approach wildlife management -- even in places such as Missouri and Arkansas that are financially far worse off than Wyoming.

State wildlife management reform is not rocket science. It involves relatively straight-forward changes to agency culture, public involvement, decision making, representation, and the system of financial incentives and disincentives.

Wyoming and other western states must be made more transparent and more accountable to a broader national public that increasingly consists of wildlife watchers and the new West’s modem cowboys and retirees, rather than an increasingly small minority of trophy hunters and traditional Lords of the energy and agriculture Yesteryear.

Wyoming officials can start by responding meaningfully to new information about grizzly bear deaths even it if means stopping the hunt this fall. Then, it can seek out new ways to engage a public that is overwhelmingly supportive, including in Wyoming, of keeping bears alive for all of us to enjoy. Other states, as well as the federal government and communities that are successfully coexisting with grizzlies, will be happy to help them with constructive ways to accomplish this aim, and the public would rejoice at a chance for meaningful input in conserving an animal that is an icon of Wilderness and our collective natural heritage.

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