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After 43 years and tens of millions of dollars, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) population of grizzly bears is off the Endangered Species List (ESL). Conservationists, including state and federal biologists who have dedicated their lives to recovery efforts, hailed the delisting.

"It isn't just another success story of the Endangered Species Act, 1 would say it is one of the greatest success stories," said Dr. Chris Servheen, PhD, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator.

Just 136 bears roamed the GYE when they were placed on the ESI. in 1975. Now at least 700 call the Yellowstone area home. Their range has expanded exponentially as well. As recently as 2002, they occupied about 8.1 million acres in the GYE. Today, they roam nearly twice that area.

History may repeat itself, though. Instead of celebrating the most recent delisting, anti-hunting groups are again suing the federal government. The bears were initially taken off the ESL in 2007, but lawsuits forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to relist the animals. The Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Wild Earth Guardians, and nine Indian tribes, among others, want to stop planned hunts this fall and put grizzlies back on the ESL.

A federal judge in Montana consolidated six suits in an effort to expedite the process prior to the scheduled hunts. His ruling is expected in late August, just days before Wyoming and Idaho are planning to open limited hunts.

"Things could certainly get interesting if he is either not ready to make a decision or if he rules in favor of the plaintiffs," said Doug Burdin, litigation counsel for Safari Club International (SCI). "I'm confident that won't happen. The delisting decision was done properly"

That's because science is on the side of groups like SCI, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Sportsmen's Alliance Foundation, all intervenors in the case. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) has researched grizzly bears for decades, including recent studies that addressed the issues brought forth in the first round of lawsuits.

"We have mountains of data that show that grizzlies are recovered under the guidelines set forth by the USFWS and that populations are not at risk," said Frank van Manen, IGBST team leader. "They have reached their biological and social carrying capacities. That is pretty indisputable."

What is also indisputable is that the hunts will have no impact on grizzly populations. Idaho will award just one bear tag through a lottery. Wyoming will allow as many as 22 to be taken by hunters. Studies by the IGBST found that mortality rates would have to exceed nine percent of females and 20 percent of males to have any impact on total populations. Assuming all 23 tags sold by Wyoming and Idaho are filled, they represent three percent or less of the total GYE grizzly population.

"Grizzly bears tend to self-regulate their populations," said van Manen. "Cubs have higher survival rates when there is available habitat and lower survival when densities exceed the carrying capacity. Adult males will kill cubs when populations start to reach carrying capacity, which is what appears to be happening within the Demographic Monitoring Area."

Most human-caused bear deaths are at the hands of wildlife management officials who euthanize problem bears. A few are in self-defense, while others are the result of vehicle collisions. Attacks on livestock remain the most common conflict, with various property damage a close second.

"The hunt as it is planned will probably not have any impact on human-bear conflicts," said Servheen, who served as the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for 35 years. "In order to reduce conflicts, the hunts would have to be targeted to areas where conflicts are highest and where bears known to be causing problems are living. That doesn't seem to be the case with the hunts as they are planned."

Van Manen agreed, adding that 10 of Wyoming's tags are allocated for the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA), the bears' core population area, which includes numerous wilderness areas and national forests surrounding Yellowstone National Park, plus the park itself. (Hunting will remain prohibited in the park.) Those bears typically don't cause problems. A dozen other tags are designated for units outside the DMA where conflicts are highest.

"There is still some debate within the scientific community about whether hunting actually reduces conflicts when it is not directed at specific animals," said van Manen. "I would say that overall, it is unlikely to have much of an impact."

That means hunters will still have to be vigilant every time they field dress an elk. At least four hunters were attacked by grizzlies in Wyoming and Montana in 2017. Countless others had face-to-face run-ins with bears. It is impossible to track every non-physical confrontation, van Manen said, but self-defense shootings by hunters have spiked in recent decades. Just two occurred between 1975 and 1984. There were 57 such incidents between 2005 and 2014.

"These observations suggest that the number of mortalities associated with self-defense incidents are most likely driven by population growth and range expansion," said van Manen.

Even if the planned hunts do reduce conflicts, Servheen is concerned they will have a negative impact on hunters and hunting in general. Just as it did with wolves, the notion of hunting grizzlies draws a visceral reaction from anti-hunters and non-hunters alike. More than 90 percent of British Columbia residents opposed the province's grizzly bear hunt, which was ultimately banned in 2017.

"The first dead bear that shows up in newspapers will be like pouring gasoline on a fire for those opposed to hunting grizzlies," said Servheen. "We can expect to see all kinds of negative responses from all over the country'

Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF) held numerous meetings throughout the state to gauge public sentiment on grizzly management, including hunting. Some of it was favorable, some wasn't.

"Most of the arguments against a hunt are based on emotion," said Dan Thompson, WGF Large Carnivore program supervisor. "We manage wildlife based on science and what is best for our state and its residents.

Do I consider what someone from out-of-state thinks? Sure. We closed areas with high eco-tourism, and hunting will only be allowed a certain distance from roads. However, we leave management decisions in other states to those states because we don't know what is best for the residents."

Whether or not anti-hunters score another temporary victory remains to be seen, but they are already drawing battle lines to the north. Officials with USFWS and state wildlife agencies have started discussions over delisting bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. As of 2014, an estimated 765 bears occupy more than 14,500 square miles in and around Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. Their populations, along with the various problems associated with bears, have also risen dramatically since they were placed on the ESL.

In the meantime, Montana hunters will have to wait for their chance at a grizzly in the Yellowstone region. Officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) chose not to participate in a bear hunt this year.

"Our allocation would have been very small, something like one or two tags," said John Vore, MFWP Game Management bureau chief "We are in the process of working on the delisting of the Northern Continental Divide grizzly bear population, and we didn't think it would have been the best use of our resources at this time. A hunt would have just complicated things for our agency, but we certainly aren't opposed, and we may participate in the coming years."
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Title Annotation:the OUT FITTER
Author:Hart, David
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1U8WY
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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