Lummis, Western senators renew push for state management of grizzlies

POWELL — A group of Republican senators from Wyoming, Idaho and Montana are calling on Democratic leaders to take “immediate” action on a bill that would return management of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears to state governments. 

The State of Wyoming has also promised to file a petition seeking the species’ delisting as a threatened species, though that document has yet to be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

And when the state’s petition arrives, it will take months, if not more than a year, for Fish and Wildlife to respond, Jennifer FortinNoreus, a biologist with the agency, said Monday. 

“There are quite a few steps we would have to take” if Fish and Wildlife found any merit to the petition, Fortin-Noreus said during a meeting of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which helps coordinate recovery efforts. 

It was on Sept. 16 that Gov. Mark Gordon and Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik gathered in the Governor’s Ceremonial Room in the State Capitol to announce the planned petition. They noted that the state has invested 46 years and more than $52 million in conserving the species. 

“Grizzly bears, by all measures, have been fully recovered since 2003,” Gordon said in the announcement. Several Republican lawmakers in Congress agree. 

In a Nov. 2 letter, U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis — joined by fellow Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso and three of their Western colleagues — bemoaned the fact that the species remains listed as a threatened species and under federal management. 

“The story of the [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem] grizzly bear should be one of triumph and success for federal, state, and local conservation efforts,” the lawmakers wrote. “Instead, it has become another story of government bureaucracy and failure that only casts doubt on the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act.” 

The region’s grizzly bears have been listed as a threatened species since 1975, when as few as 136 bears roamed the area. The population has since rebounded to more than 1,000 animals. 

“Grizzlies are moving well beyond areas where the bears can exist, causing loss of human life, damage to livestock, and eroding public support for the recovery of this iconic and important species,” the Republican senators wrote in their letter. “Clearly, this is not good for either public safety or the welfare of the animal.” 

Federal and state wildlife managers have said that grizzlies appear to have reached their carrying capacity in Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Service attempted to delist the species under presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but were met with opposition from environmental groups and Native American tribes. 

Opponents have expressed concern that the species’ recovery remains tenuous — particularly in light of the changing climate — and they took issue with Wyoming and Idaho’s plans to allow a small number of bears to be hunted as trophy game. 

When Fish and Wildlife delisted the Greater Yellowstone population in 2017, a number of groups sued and a federal judge in Montana reinstated protections the following year. 

In a 2018 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen found that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately consider how delisting the region’s bears would impact grizzlies in other parts of the country, had illegally negotiated a deal with state officials about how to estimate the number of bears and hadn’t taken enough measures to ensure the genetic diversity of the GYE population. 

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will make another attempt to delist the bears, but in the meantime, Sens. Lummis, Barrasso, Steve Daines, R-Mont., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and James Risch, R-Idaho, have written a bill that would do so legislatively. 

The measure was introduced in March, but has yet to get a hearing before the Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife. 

In their letter to the Democratic chairs of those committees, the five Republican senators asked for “immediate consideration and action” on S. 973, the Grizzly Bear State Management Act of 2021. 

“The legislation is simple but of utmost importance to the lives and livelihoods of our residents and all Americans who visit the Greater Yellowstone region,” they wrote. 

The GOP lawmakers said they often hear from concerned outfitters, hikers, hunters, ranchers, and other public land users on the grizzly issue, also alluding to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of livestock losses. 

“We feel compelled to take action,” the senators wrote. “The Grizzly Bear State Management Act is essential to ensuring the recovery of the GYE grizzly is a happy conservation success story, not a grisly failure.” 

Previous efforts to pass similar legislation have been unsuccessful, including under a Republican Congress in 2018.