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It’s been several decades since grizzly bears could be legally hunted anywhere in the lower 48. But all that may be changing soon in Wyoming. The federal status of grizzlies in this part of the country was recently changed from threatened to recovered. As a result, Wyoming’s state fish and game agency have proposed issuing a small number of grizzly bear tags as early as this year. It’s a foregone conclusion that this is going to be a controversial situation.

Due to over one hundred years of unmitigated habitat loss, unregulated hunting, and even poisoning, grizzlies had been extirpated from most of their historic range in the lower 48 by the 1950s. A small number of grizzlies remained in fragmented populations living mostly in or near Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. In 1975, grizzly bears were designated a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and full federal protections were put in place in order to recover the population.

Eventually, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service divided the grizzly bears of the lower-48 into Distinct Population Segments in order to provide more regionally specific and focused management of the species. Currently, there are five distinct populations of grizzly bears in the lower 48.

  • Less than 20 grizzlies remain in Washington’s Northern Cascades Ecosystem. The last time a grizzly was seen in the area was 2010 and at any given time, it’s likely that only a few of the bears are in the U.S. (They straddle the border between the U.S. and Canada.) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently stated continued federal protection status and restoration efforts are necessary in order to ensure the future of this small, vulnerable population of grizzly bears.
  • The grizzly population of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in northwestern Montana currently numbers around fifty bears, or only about half of the recovery goal. The population is doing fairly well but warrants continued federal protection due to a small population and genetic isolation.
  • The remote Selkirk Ecosystem in northern Idaho holds about 80 grizzly bears, many of which wander back and forth across the Canadian border. Currently, the grizzlies here still require the same management strategies as their nearby counterparts in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.
  • The grizzlies of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem reside in and around the Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness region of northwestern Montana. Current estimates put this healthy, growing population around one thousand bears. These grizzly bears have met recovery goals and are expanding their range rapidly. In recent years, grizzlies from this population have been pushing their way eastward on to the Great Plains. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting this population segment of grizzlies. While grizzlies here remain federally protected, hunting may soon be a viable state management tool in this part of Montana.
  • The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, or GYE population of grizzlies is found in an area roughly the size of Indiana in northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana, and eastern Idaho. At the time of listing in 1975, grizzly bear numbers here were as low as 136 animals. After decades of federal protection and habitat conservation, that number now stands at least 700, and likely as many as 1000 bears. Grizzly bear populations have met federal recovery goals in the region for the last fifteen years. With more and more bears ranging outside the established recovery area, it is likely that the natural carrying capacity and maximum sustainable population for grizzly bears is close to being reached in the GYE. And in response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially declared the GYE population of grizzly bears recovered.

There are some very important implications here. The first is that the same agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that originally determined grizzly bears should be listed as a threatened species have now declared grizzlies fully recovered in the GYE and it’s likely they’ll soon make the same determination for Northern Continental Divide grizzlies. And the goal of managing wildlife under the Endangered Species Act is not only to provide the protections necessary to prevent a species from disappearing from the landscape but also to manage endangered or threatened species for a full recovery so they can eventually be delisted and classified as no longer requiring federal protection status.

The recent delisting of the GYE grizzly bears should stand out and be celebrated as an example of how the ESA has worked successfully to recover a species. And once recovered, the management of that species should fall to state fish and game agencies-just as state management was successfully implemented in the case of gray wolves in the same part of the country.

And just like wolves in the GYE, the grizzly bears that reside inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks will remain protected with no possibility of hunting. But part of the management of grizzlies in the states that comprise Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will necessarily include hunting a small number of bears outside the national parks. Although Wyoming’s management proposal for grizzly hunting is still in the early stages, it will be under intense scrutiny. Although we’d like to see meat salvage requirements be added to these regulations, it’s clear the state wildlife managers have put a lot of time and money into crafting a detailed management plan for grizzly bears in Wyoming. Montana and Idaho are also drafting management plans for grizzly bear hunts.

And no one, especially state wildlife managers in these states, wants to see grizzly bears go back to being classified as a threatened species. For this very reason, Wyoming’s grizzly hunt will be closely monitored by state officials and the number of bears that can be legally killed will be extremely conservative, posing no threat to the longevity of the species. Under the proposed regulations, state wildlife managers will only be releasing a couple of tags at a time in order to control harvest quotas and strictly limit female mortality. Up to eleven bears and only two females are allowed to be killed within the “monitored” recovery area near Yellowstone. If two females are killed before the total quota is met, the hunt may be shut down to prevent further female mortality. Because grizzlies in the region have expanded their numbers and range into marginal grizzly habitat outside the fringes of the established recovery area, human/bear conflicts and livestock predation are increasingly common. In these areas, up to twelve grizzlies can be harvested, with a goal of reducing conflicts with problem bears. This could help to generate increased tolerance for grizzlies in rural areas where people often feel local needs have been ignored in favor of overreaching federal management that has not lessened in any appreciable way since the bears reached federal recovery objectives all those years ago.

With that said, it’s important that we recognize the importance of federal protections in the continued recovering of other grizzly bear populations. At MeatEater, we love grizzlies and we’d love to see more of them wherever appropriate habitat exists to support them. Smaller, more vulnerable populations of grizzlies deserve continued federal management. To that end, we need to ensure that grizzly bears can travel naturally through interconnected corridors of suitable habitat to facilitate genetic exchange between populations. It’s more likely that if Selkirk bears can intermingle with Cabinet-Yaak bears both populations will do better. And, if Northern Continental Divide bears are able to mingle with Greater Yellowstone bears, there’s less risk of either population backsliding into a threatened status.

It’s a worthwhile goal to fully recover all of these grizzly populations and then turn over management to the relevant state and fish and game agencies. Recovering a valuable game animal from near-extinction to the point where the population can support a limited amount of hunting should only be viewed a conservation and wildlife management success story. It’d be a win for the grizzlies, and a win for the people.

-Brody Henderson and the MeatEater Crew

Brody Henderson is a hunter, writer, fly fishing guide and MeatEater’s Community Manager and Editorial Contributor