Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R) recently announced the state is seeking control of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) by petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to delist the GYE grizzly bear population.
“The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear has met and exceeded all scientific benchmarks for recovery,” Gordon said in a press conference. “We have proved time and time again that we are experts in wildlife conservation for our state’s valued and iconic species. It’s time for grizzly bears to be returned fully to the states for management, as our citizens have supported recovery efforts and seen monumental success.”
After 46 years since grizzlies were first listed and more than $52 million in investments, Gordon stated that grizzly bears have fully recovered since 2003, when USFWS considered GYE bears to be biologically recovered. The state has a grizzly bear management plan in place, and “It will be amended to recognize the necessary legal requirements to satisfy the ESA requirements for post-delisting management,” Gordon said.
In his announcement, Gordon also stated Wyoming intends to address concerns raised by the courts in 2017. Grizzly bears were briefly removed from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2017 because USFWS considered bears in the GYE to be “biologically recovered and no longer required protection under the ESA.”
However, a federal judge in 2018 ruled USFWS had violated the Administrative Procedure Act when it delisted the bears. Montana District Court Judge Dana Christensen ruled USFWS illogically relied on a pair of studies that made opposing conclusions to USFWS' arguments. The agency “illegally negotiated away its obligation to apply the best available science” in population estimates, Christensen said.
In 2020, Judge Mary M. Schroeder of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the 2018 district court ruling, which found deficiencies in the USFWS’ analysis of delisting the bears in 2017.
Gordon stated the number of grizzlies in the GYE is more than 1,000, and the bear’s range has extended beyond “the edges of the bear’s biological and socially suitable range.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told the Cowboy State Daily the state has addressed the concerns in the court ruling and is confident they will be victorious.
“We were very, very close to the finish line,” Nesvik said. “I think if we make these changes, I’m optimistic that once they evaluate the petition based on science and its merits, that we will prevail.”
The changes in the announcement include amending grizzly bear management policies that will adjust the annual management and mortality targets; updating plans to recognize the updated population model now adopted by grizzly bear experts; and providing for translocation of bears into the population as needed to maintain genetic diversity.
Nesvik said the GYE is the only area large enough to sustain the bear population, as agricultural and recreation interests also use large tracts of land.
“Grizzly bears need large tracts of unroaded areas without a lot of other use in order to be successful. If they get close to those other kinds of human uses, they find themselves in trouble,” Nesvik said.
The bear-human conflicts have led to the department killing up to 35 grizzlies per year, Nesvik said.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 25 grizzlies have been put down so far this year due to conflicts with livestock, property damage while searching for food and repeated bold behavior at guest lodges and trailheads.
The Center for Biological Diversity panned Gordon’s plan, saying the reason Wyoming wants more control of the grizzly bears is to “allow a trophy hunt.”
“Federal officials should reject this outrageous request, which aims to turn Wyoming’s imperiled grizzly bears into trophy hunting targets,” Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have shown repeatedly that they’ll do anything to appease special interests like the agricultural industry and trapping associations. These states just can’t be trusted to manage grizzly bears.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY-At Large) commended Gordon for filing a petition to delist the GYE grizzly bear and allow Wyoming to manage the population.
“In Wyoming and across the West, we have witnessed effective state management resulting in the recovery of the grizzly bear population,” Cheney said in a statement. “It is imperative that the federal government adhere to the work being done on the ground by local stakeholders and empower them to manage these populations without interference.”
Cheney stated that the federal government “continues to move the goalposts and unnecessarily prolong its delisting.” Cheney said she would work in Washington D.C. and is committed to the effort to delist the bears.
Cheney pointed to her work to delist the grizzly bears, including the Grizzly Bear State Management Act of 2021 and cosigning a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, questioning USFWS’ assessment to maintain the grizzly bear’s listing as threatened.
According to the statement by Gordon, the petition will be filed in the coming weeks. Wyoming is currently amending management agreements between Idaho and Montana. Those agreements, known as the Tri-State Memorandum of Agreement, will be reviewed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission in the coming weeks.
“With management, we are vowing—and committing—to long-term grizzly bear conservation,” Gordon concluded. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor