We’re not exaggerating. Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Director John Emmerich and members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee weren’t even subtle about their desire to see more grizzlies hunted and killed, according to press coverage of a recent subcommittee meeting. (Yes, the same committee oversees wildlife management and state tourism, which indicates attitudes toward wildlife management.) Standing in their way: the Endangered Species Act, which protects the grizzly population.
A September 2009 decision from Judge Donald Malloy in federal court held that because of changing climate change in the greater Yellowstone region grizzlies deserved continued protection; he further held that the Bush Administration was misguided in its 2007 assertion that the bear population had rebounded to the point where it did not warrant protection. Instead of thriving after an “amazing” population comeback, Molloy ruled, the bears face long-term dangers because the potential loss of food sources like whitebark pine nuts due to global climate changes; those dangers are more than enough to warranted a continued protected status for grizzlies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Realizing that delisting the grizzly would be an almost-impossible task, Emmerich said the way to removing more grizzlies was to estimate there are more grizzlies than listed in official counts, which would allow for higher removal counts:
The importance of having a better population estimate isn’t for delisting, Emmerich said, “but it will give us a better idea of how many bears can be removed from the population.”
Since lethal “take” thresholds are based on the percentage of grizzlies in the population, a 10 percent threshold for removal of problem bears equates to 60 — for a population of 600. To put that into perspective, Game and Fish trapped and either killed or relocated 65 bears last year — more than 10 percent of the current population estimate.
In a surreal statement — at a time when both Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park are setting attendance records despite a poor economy — Kim Floyd, executive secretary of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, testified that an “explosion of grizzly bears” are driving away some some hunters and recreationalists because of the thriving grizzly population, presumably because there’s less game due to grizzly kills.
The solution, which is highly unlikely to happen, is to spend $12.9 million or so on what Emmerich described as a more accurate tally of the grizzly population involving DNA testing and the collection of hair samples throughout the region. That was met with some pushback from committee members, especially after Emmerich’s assertion that delisting was an unlikely outcome even if a larger bear population was proven.
Are there too many grizzlies? It’s really hard to argue that 1,000 grizzlies over more than 3,400 square miles of Yellowstone National Park is too many, never mind the expanded footprint of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, so the assertion that 1,000 is better than 600 is fairly specious. (By contrast, Maine supports 23,000 black bears on 35,000 or so square miles, in a much more populated area.) Recently there’s been a debate over whether grizzlies are more aggressive in the face of global warming and declining food supplies, a position taken by some environmentalists to justify additional management of the species. But if Yellowstone National Park is any indication, there are not hordes of grizzlies waiting to attack humans or Stephen Colbert: in 2010, there were no documented bear attacks in the Park, with the last one happening more than two years ago. Going back in history, say Park officials, the rate of bear-inflicted human injuries in the park has declined from 175 injuries per million visitors in the 1930s to less than one injury per million visitors in each of the last three decades. There were two high-profile bear attacks last summer just outside of the Yellowstone boundaries, and one certainly could not have been prevented.
Image courtesy of National Park Service.