With most Montana seasons closed and grizzly bears in their dens for the winter, sportsmen and wildlife managers alike are reflecting on an alarming season of grizzly bear-hunter conflicts.
The state recorded six grizzly attacks on hunters in 2016, including one fatality.
This week in Missoula, the scientists in the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee voted unanimously to support delisting of Yellowstone region grizzlies from Endangered Species protections, an action that could lead to controlled hunting of grizzlies to stabilize their populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
The expanding population of grizzlies and their proximity to hunters weighed heavy on the minds of hunters in the field this season.
As Livingston resident and grizzly advocate Louisa Willcox on her Grizzly Times website noted, “As many hunters well know, grizzlies are learning that gunshots are dinner bells, sounding a potential serving of carrion.”
About 700 grizzlies roam the 6 million acres of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem surrounding Glacier, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem holds another 700 or more grizzlies.
Hunting is not allowed in the parks. However, hunting is allowed in national forests on the parks’ fringes for big game species such as elk and black bears.
If removal of Yellowstone-area grizzly bears from the protection of the Endangered Species Act is approved on schedule at the end of 2016, by this time next year the great bears could be added to the list of animals hunters pursue in the region.
Wildlife agencies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have submitted plans to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outlining how many grizzly tags they might issue based on annual bear mortality rates and population estimates.
Any Montana season would be “very conservative and designed to limit the harvest of females,” according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The USFWS’s decision is bound to end up in court no matter how it rules. Opponents to the delisting, such as Willcox, point to the already high mortality rate of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies, as one reason.
“By overtly catering to people with guns, and a yen to kill predators, the states are giving power to a lethal few at the expense of the nonlethal majority who flock to Yellowstone to witness bears living in a functioning ecosystem,” Willcox wrote.
This year there have been 54 documented grizzly bear deaths in the ecosystem, according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team’s data. Of those, 37 have been classified as “human caused” fatalities, everything from being hit by a vehicle to those killed by wildlife managers for preying on livestock.
Another 14 of the grizzly deaths are under investigation, the majority in Wyoming.
Between 1998 and 2008, hunters killed 52 grizzly bears in what’s described as “defense of life” situations – 14 in 2008 alone, according to an IGBST report. Another 15 were mistakenly killed by hunters who thought the grizzly bear was a black bear.
Despite such statistics, state wildlife management agencies and some wildlife groups insist that since the recovery goal of an increased grizzly bear population has been met, the animals should be delisted and management turned over to the states.
As Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks stated on its website: “assurances are in place to maintain a healthy and viable population of bears in the GYA.”
Many hunters are enthused about the potential for hunting grizzlies if delisting is approved.
Some hunters have said that killing bears could remove those animals most likely to get into trouble with humans, since they would be roaming the fringes of places like Yellowstone.
Willcox sees removal of federal protection as a slow slide for grizzlies “toward extinction once again.”
States say hunting quotas would be conservative and flexible to prevent reducing grizzly numbers below a threshold.
Brett French of the Billings Gazette contributed to this story.
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