CASPER — Wyoming will petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Gov. Mark Gordon said Thursday.
Since grizzlies were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, the region’s population has climbed from 136 to more than 1,000. The bears’ expanding numbers confirm that the species has met and exceeded all benchmarks for recovery, Gordon told reporters during Thursday’s news briefing.
“By all measures, the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population has recovered biologically,” Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said during the call.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2007 delisting of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was overturned by a federal judge in 2009. Its 2017 delisting attempt was overturned the following year.
“Grizzly bears have expanded beyond those places that would be considered biologically and socially suitable,” Nesvik said. “Right now, the state doesn’t have any way to proactively manage those bears, and to control that expansion. Essentially, it’s very much a reactive response that we have under federal management.”
If the bears were under the jurisdiction of the state, the Game and Fish Department could implement other tools, including grizzly hunting, to limit that expansion.
But conservation advocates say the bears’ populations aren’t expanding outside their standard habitat. Rather, they’re traveling farther in search of food, which is becoming increasingly scarce, partly because of climate change.
Predator populations also self-regulate, said Andrea Zaccardi, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. Bears’ numbers are limited by the capacity of their habitat.
“The only reason the states want more management control is so they can kill more bears and allow a trophy hunt,” Zaccardi said.
In his 2018 ruling against delisting, Judge Dana L. Christensen of the U.S. District Court for Montana determined that the Fish and Wildlife Service had not adequately considered the impacts of hunting on grizzly populations outside the region or of other potential threats to the species.
The verdict returned the bears to the threatened species list and blocked a controversial grizzly hunt that had been planned in Wyoming after the Fish and Wildlife Service initially lifted protections.
“Wyoming approved an extremely aggressive hunt,” Zaccardi said. “At this point, I don’t think we can trust the state to manage grizzly bears.”
If the Fish and Wildlife Service elects to lift Endangered Species Act protections and return management to the states, grizzly bear hunts in Wyoming and neighboring states are likely to follow.
“We’ll fight it again, just like we have the last two or three times,” said Tom Mangelsen, a wildlife photographer who entered the state’s pre-relisting raffle for one of 22 grizzly hunting tags in 2018. He got death threats, he said, when word got out that he’d won a tag and planned to “hunt” with his camera.
“It’s just frustrating that we keep going through this,” he said.
Once the state’s petition has been filed, the Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to determine whether to conduct a comprehensive status review. It will then have 12 months, beginning from receipt of the petition, to make a final decision on whether to pursue delisting.