Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead is calling on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to end Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
Mead wrote to Salazar on May 24 asking him to work with Wyoming to delist grizzlies sooner than is currently anticipated. Delisting by the federal government appears to be at least two years away because an evaluation of data related to the whitebark pine—an important food source for grizzlies—is starting and is slated to take two years.
Mead has indicated that it is both costly and dangerous for federal protections to remain in place.
“The continued listing of a recovered population of grizzly bears is a threat to people, especially recreationalists, hunters, and property owners, and it is costly to manage,” Mead wrote in his letter to Salazar.
While both Wyoming and federal law currently prohibit grizzly bear hunting, Wyoming’s grizzly bear management plan allows for a grizzly bear hunting season after the species is delisted. Grizzlies have remained classified as a “trophy game animal” in Wyoming since their ESA listing in 1975, meaning the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will assume management authority over the bears—which includes the setting of seasons, bag limits and hunting zones—once delisting occurs.
“Regulated hunting will be part of the Department’s overall grizzly bear management program,” the management plan states. “Grizzly bear hunts may not necessarily begin immediately upon delisting, however, they will occur when grizzly bears are at a population level able to sustain limited harvest.”
Biologists estimate the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which encompasses parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, at approximately 600 bears. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service originally delisted Yellowstone-area grizzlies in 2007, saying the population no longer met the ESA definition of “threatened” or “endangered.” The bears were returned to “threatened” status by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in September 2009, however, after environmental groups challenged the delisting.
In vacating the delisting order, Molloy cited—among other concerns—the impact of whitebark pine cone production on grizzly survival. The nuts in whitebark pine cones are an important part of the bears’ fall diet, and the trees are dying off in the Yellowstone area due to a mountain pine beetle epidemic.
State and federal biologists say that the bears appear to be adapting to poor cone production by locating other food sources; however, grizzlies have moved to lower elevations in search of food, resulting in increased bear-human conflicts.
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Molloy’s ruling in November 2011.
Mead has asked that grizzly management be turned over to the state on the basis that Wyoming is bearing the financial and social burdens of living with the species. Wyoming does not have jurisdiction over the grizzlies within its borders, yet the state pays for the management of the bears.
“The situation is severe and costly,” Meade wrote. “There were four human deaths over the past two years in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Damage to private and public property was disturbing and costly. Wyoming’s investment in recovery over the past 28 years exceeds $35 million. The average annual cost to Wyoming for grizzly management approaches $2 million. This is paid by Wyoming hunting license revenue, not United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) grants and Wyoming does not have jurisdiction for the bears—the USFWS does.”
Mead is specifically asking that federal and state officials work together now to expedite the analysis of the whitebark pine data and how it may relate to grizzly bear populations.
“Two years is too long and the cost is too great,” he wrote.
“I appreciate that the governor has called public attention to the fact that the cost of wildlife management, including protection and recovery of endangered species, is borne by hunters,” said Susan Recce, NRA Director of Wildlife, Conservation and Natural Resources. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to be mindful that hunters’ dollars should not be spent on a recovery program that is no longer needed. I trust that the Interior Department will accept the governor’s offer to work together in a manner that can produce the scientific data in a more timely fashion.”
Related: Wyoming seeks to remove grizzlies from endangered species list, opening door for future hunting