Wyoming may seek grizzly delisting on its own

JACKSON — The state of Wyoming is prepared to petition for the authority to manage grizzly bears on its own, without support from neighboring states in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“We believe it’s the right thing to do for Wyoming,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik told the News&Guide.

Nesvik and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon announced during September that the state would soon file paperwork with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking to end federal protection for the species classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. There have been two attempts to revoke federal protections and allow states to manage grizzly bears since 2009, but both times that the species was “delisted” federal judges overturned the decisions.

Fish and Wildlife recently completed a “status review” of grizzlies across their range in the lower 48 states, and that document did not recommend immediately pursuing delisting of the Greater Yellowstone population for a third time.

“We’ve had a couple discussions with them and they weren’t completely opposed to the idea, but I just didn’t get a sense that they were interested in doing it very quickly,” Nesvik said.

Wyoming plans to force the issue as soon as November and directly petition the Fish and Wildlife Service using a mechanism of the Endangered Species Act that is available to any member of the public. Federal wildlife managers will then have 90 days to evaluate the petition’s merits and release their findings. If they find that delisting is again warranted, they’ll have one year to prepare another status review that would include the final decision.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Montana and Idaho will join the petition.

“A decision has not been reached in determining whether Idaho will join Wyoming’s petition,” Marissa Morrison Hyer, the press secretary for Idaho Gov. Brad Little, wrote in an email. “Idaho is working with Wyoming officials and wildlife agencies regarding the matter.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Greg Lemon was not aware of the status of his state’s discussions with Wyoming, and he was unable to track down any answers before press time.

Whether or not Montana and Idaho sign the petition is “not important,” in Nesvik’s view.

“We don’t have final commitments or agreements,” Nesvik said. “But everybody has agreed to work together on doing what we need to do in order to meet any of the requirements for the [Fish and Wildlife] Service to do a status review.”

The nature of the tri-state collaboration is still taking shape, he said.

Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association President Sy Gilliland supports Wyoming’s attempt to regain control of its grizzly bears and would not fault his home state for moving forward without Montana and Idaho signed on as co-petitioners.

“From what I understand, yes, we are going alone,” Gilliland said. “I just think it shows leadership on the part of the state of Wyoming. If you look at the grizzly bear population, I think it’s affected Wyoming more so than the other two states — how it’s affected our livestock producers, our sportsmen and our land uses.”

Grizzly bears were wiped out from most of their native range in Wyoming by the early 20th century, and by the early 1970s as few as 130 animals remained in the ecosystem, primarily in Yellowstone National Park. Over subsequent decades, while grizzlies were protected from hunting and progress was made curbing lethal conflict, the population bounced back to exceed the recovery goals established when Ursus arctos horribilis was first protected by the Endangered Species Act some 46 years ago.

Wyoming has spent $52 million managing and recovering grizzly bears since then, according to state figures. Grizzlies range has stretched considerably, and approximately 1,000 bears are now estimated to occupy an 18,000-square-mile monitoring area where wildlife managers count bears and promote their existence.

Endangered Species Act petitions are most commonly filed to classify and protect a species as threatened or endangered — not the opposite. Nesvik called it a “unique” approach, but he added that it’s one the state of Wyoming used about 15 years ago to regain jurisdiction over its wolf population. In that instance Wyoming also petitioned alone because wolves in Montana and Idaho were already under state management.

“[Wyoming wolves] were delisted based on that petition, and then listed again based on litigation,” Nesvik said. “In this case [with grizzlies], it’s pretty easy because the requirements for delisting are met.”

At least one conservation advocacy group condemned Wyoming’s latest attempt to end federal protections for grizzlies. Victor, Idaho, resident Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the petition “outrageous” and said it aims to turn grizzlies into “trophy hunting targets.”

“Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have shown repeatedly that they’ll do anything to appease special interests like the agricultural industry and trapping associations,” Zaccardi said in a statement. “These states just can’t be trusted to manage grizzly bears.”

When Wyoming last had jurisdiction over its grizzly bears in 2018, the state was days away from authorizing its first grizzly hunt in over 40 years. Up to 22 of the bruins could have been killed by hunters that fall, but the week before the season would have begun a U.S. District Court judge for Montana, Dana Christensen, granted an injunction and put a stop to the hunt.

The judge ruled in the plaintiff’s favor on two issues, and a federal appeals court agreed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to ensure interchange that would protect the genetic health of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears, the court ruled. The courts also faulted federal wildlife managers for “recalibration” — switching to a different method to count grizzlies — which could have vastly increased the number of bears that states could have targeted during hunts.

Gov. Gordon said those two issues are being addressed while announcing Wyoming’s petition in September.

“Regarding recalibration, Wyoming is amending grizzly bear management policies that will adjust the annual management and mortality targets to reflect the updated population,” Gordon said. “The state is committed to the bears’ long-term genetic health and will provide for translocation of bears into the population, as needed, to maintain genetic diversity.”