A Nevada hunter was the third person harmed by a grizzly bear this year, prompting some to ask if it's time to start hunting them. Steve Stevenson was mauled after he and friend Ty Bell were tracking the wounded bear Bell mistook for a black bear near the Montana-Idaho border in September. Two hikers were killed by grizzly bears in separate incidents in Yellowstone National Park last summer. In addition to those fatalities, reports of nuisance bears have increased dramatically in recent years. Over a hundred grizzlies in the Yellowstone region have been killed by hunters acting in self-defense, by state or federal officials removing problem animals, or by vehicles in the last three years alone.
Montana Outfitter and Guide Association Executive Director Mac Minard says the recent fatalities and the increase in nuisance complaints shouldn't be the driving force behind a grizzly bear hunt. Instead, he says bears should be hunted because they are a renewable resource with a proven track record of sound management behind them.
"Why not hunt them?" says Minard. "Management in the form of hunting can certainly have a beneficial effect on reducing problems, but I don't think that should be the primary reason for opening a season on grizzlies. They should be hunted because they are a renewable resource, and state wildlife agencies and the federal government have done a good job managing bears and other wildlife species under their control."
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Threatened and Endangered Species Section Manager Lori Hanauska-Brown agrees that hunting can help reduce bear-human conflicts if it is done properly. That includes focusing hunting pressure on the animals in areas where nuisance complaints and livestock depredation are highest.
"Hunted populations tend to behave better, so to speak. They could become
conditioned to avoid humans much more so than they are now if they were hunted," says Hanauska-Brown.
But will it actually happen? Minard and Hanauska-Brown believe it will, although not in the immediate future. In fact, Montana is poised to open a season pending the
removal of grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List (ESL). So is Wyoming. But bears will likely be a political and legal hot-potato just as wolves were.
"It gets complicated when you discuss the Greater Yellowstone Area population because three different states (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) are involved in any management decisions," says Hanauska-Brown. "In the case of the Northern Continental Divide population (around Glacier National Park), it's much easier because it does not involve any other state. Hunting is certainly one part of the management discussion."
Removed, Then Relisted
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) placed grizzly bears in the Lower 48 on the ESL in 1975, giving the animals full protection. There were just a few hundred then and they occupied just 2 percent of their historic range. Since, the number of grizzlies has increased steadily, growing by more than 4 percent annually in the Greater Yellowstone population where about 600 animals now live. Bears in that region were removed from the ESL in 2007, and management was
slated to be turned over to Wyoming,
Montana, and Idaho. That was thwarted, however, when the Greater Yellowstone Coalition filed a suit to block the delisting. The Coalition claimed the USFWS did not consider the decline in white bark pine trees, an important food source of grizzlies, in its recovery plan. Wyoming is one of several parties involved in a suit to overturn the bear's relisting, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is awaiting the removal of grizzlies from the ESL. When they are, a hunting season will be in the works, says WGFD spokesman Eric Keszler.
"It has always been our position that hunting is a viable management tool under two conditions: if there is a surplus of bears and as a way to help reduce conflicts with humans," he says. "According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, grizzly bears are recovered in the Yellowstone region."
There are six distinct subpopulations in the contiguous United States, including one in north-central Washington, which has fewer than 20 bears, and the Bitterroot
region of Idaho, which, according to USFWS biologists, has no grizzlies. Populations are also small in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and the Cabinet-Yaak area of northern Idaho and western Montana, the area where Stevenson was attacked in September.
Bears in other regions, however, continue to multiply and have met the goals for removal from the ESL, says Hanuaska-Brown. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found grizzly bears have expanded their range in the Northern Continental Divide population by 2.5 million acres since 1993. There are an estimated 765 animals, the largest of the six subpopulations. Grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Area are also expanding their range, with sightings in areas where the bears haven't been seen in decades.
"There are a lot of 'ifs' that have to be addressed before we can start the process of using hunting as a management tool. There will also be a fairly lengthy public comment period," she says.
That means animal rights groups will likely fight any notion of a hunting season, no matter how limited or carefully managed. Despite their recovery and removal from the Endangered Species List, wolves continue to be subject of heated battles and ongoing lawsuits filed by environmentalists and anti-hunters. Hanauska-Brown expects a similar fight with grizzly bears.