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Under the Gun

Protected for a generation, grizzly bears around Yellowstone may soon be delisted and hunted

All Animals magazine

by Karen E. Lange

A lone grizzly walks by the side of Yellowstone Lake, where cutthroat trout that once helped feed bears have all but disappeared. Photo by Barrett Hedges/National Geographic Creative.

Editor's note: Since this story first published, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened the comment period on its proposed plan to delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The comment period closes Oct. 7, 2016.

Each April, people around the world await the emergence of a 20-year-old grizzly from a muddy hole outside Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The bear, called “399” after the number on her radio collar, has a couple Facebook pages, an informal fan club and a lavishly illustrated biography, published last fall. Over the years, she has come out of her den with a total of 11 cubs, one of whom had five offspring of her own. About half of 399’s 16 descendants are dead—at least one illegally shot by a hunter, one killed after preying on sheep and cattle and two hit by vehicles (the causes of all the deaths are not known). And half of 399’s offspring are still alive, some wearing their own radio collars.

What has made 399 famous is that her life has played out in front of people. Along with other mama grizzlies at Grand Teton and neighboring Yellowstone, 399 chooses to feed in roadside meadows so her cubs are safe from male bears in the backcountry. She and her family have become a beloved attraction: Cars idle in “bear jams” as tourists watch the grizzlies dig up yampa tubers, biscuitroot and earthworms. Photographers maneuver to get close-up pictures. Rangers work to keep scores of visitors at least 100 yards away.

But the strategy 399 has followed to keep some of her cubs alive may soon put her own life at risk. Before the year is out, she and other grizzlies in what’s called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could be removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act and soon subject to trophy hunting outside the two national parks. Because 399 trusts humans and often spends time outside Grand Teton, she could be among the first bears shot, leaving orphaned cubs. Other roadside bears will most likely die, as will many grizzlies the public seldom sees, if states are allowed to open hunting seasons on an iconic population that not so long ago almost went extinct.

“The federal government is rushing to delist, to turn management over to the states,” says Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection at The HSUS. “And the states are just going to set up trophy hunting.”

Some 80,000 years ago—before there was a Grand Teton or a Yellowstone, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or even a U.S.—the ancestors of 399 and the other park grizzlies arrived in North America. In between ice ages, the bears crossed a land bridge from Asia, on their way to populate half the continent. Over a long, long time, and waves of migration, they multiplied to 50,000. When the first humans moved into the Great Plains and the West, the great bears ranged over the landscape.

In the 1800s, however, the bears nearly disappeared, as ranchers, farmers and government agents trapped and shot them. By the early 1930s, nearly all that was left of grizzlies in the lower 48 were stuffed mounts of rearing bears, huge trophy skins and the image of a now-extinct subspecies on the California state flag. Only a handful of small, isolated grizzly populations survived. One was in remote and rugged Yellowstone National Park. By the early 1970s, the bears there numbered as few as 136.

Then, in 1975, a landmark decision changed that population’s trajectory: Grizzlies in the lower 48 states were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Since that year, it’s been illegal to hunt them. People have also gotten smarter about living near bears, learning to dispose of their garbage, which can lure grizzlies into deadly conflicts with humans, in bear-proof containers. Sheep no longer graze on some of the public lands bordering the parks, and logging roads have been closed, giving bears more habitat. Very slowly—on average, female bears have only two cubs every three years—grizzly numbers have risen in the region in and around the parks. Under federal protection, bears have expanded out of Yellowstone into Grand Teton and beyond. Today, against all odds, visitors to the parks can see them, and 4 million to 5 million people a year go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton for the experience.

Watched by tourists grateful for a glimpse of the famous bear, 399 slips across a road in Grand Teton with her second set of triplets in June 2011, on the first day the cubs were seen by humans. Only one of the cubs survives. Another was hit by a car around a year later and the third hasn't been seen since 2012. Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen/www.mangelsen.com.

“Miraculous” is what scientist David Mattson, a researcher who has followed these grizzlies for four decades, calls the bears, their adaptation to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and their survival into the 21st century in the face of so many threats to their existence. Yet this population of grizzlies—bears the federal government spent 40 years and tens of millions of dollars nurturing back to life--could soon be subjected to trophy hunting outside the boundaries of Yellowstone and Grand Teton. This spring the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed that the bears be removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act under a plan that would allow states to permit hunting. In March, the Wyoming Fish and Game Department issued a press release announcing its proposed management plan—a required part of the process—and stating that U.S. Fish & Wildlife has committed to finish delisting these grizzly bears by the end of the summer. In May, Montana announced a proposed plan, which includes allowing hunters to kill up to 10 bears a year in areas near Yellowstone park.

  • Since 2002, the number of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (shown as estimated number of female bears) has remained flat, worrying some scientists. Between 2002 and 2014, the population increased less than 1 percent per year. From 2007 to 2014, it decreased 2.5 percent per year. Source: David Mattson (data from Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team).

All this is happening even though there are few bears to hunt: They number around 700 according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates—just 100 more than the 600 bears the agency wants to maintain in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Last year, even without trophy hunting, 61 grizzlies are known to have died in human-bear conflicts. Individual bears who threaten people or their property are regularly killed by professional wildlife managers.

“Why rush [to delist] when you’re as close as you are to your absolute minimum?” asks Mattson, perhaps the most vocal of the scores of scientists opposing the delisting, including prominent biologists Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson, George Schaller and Michael Soule. Unlike government researchers, Mattson can speak freely because he’s retired from the U.S. Geological Survey and no longer serves on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. “It’s a precious gift to have grizzly bears here, hanging on.”

Speak out for grizzlies: Sign The HSUS petition to keep grizzly bears protected »

With the help of experts such as Mattson, The HSUS and other conservation groups are pushing to keep all grizzly bears listed as threatened. The HSUS does not believe the bear population in the lower 48 has recovered across a significant portion of its historic range and is concerned that the game departments of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, which would have authority over delisted bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, will not responsibly manage the grizzlies.

“These are the same three states that wanted to kill wolves down to the minimum population numbers allowed by the FWS as soon as they were delisted,” says Paquette. “The three states’ intentions are for the bears to be trophy-hunted.”

That means grizzlies will be killed merely for their skins or heads or claws. The HSUS is urging its supporters to speak out against the proposed delisting at the federal level and hunting plans at the state level. Time is short. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the fish and game departments of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are taking accelerated steps to approve these measures before President Obama leaves office.

A majority of Americans oppose what the agency and states are trying to do, according to a national poll in April commissioned by The HSUS and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates: 55 percent of those asked opposed delisting (versus 26 percent in favor) and 67 percent opposed hunting (versus 20 percent in favor).

By mid-May, nearly 70,000 opponents had signed an HSUS online action alert and the 60-day U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service comment period had closed. The agency had denied requests from The HSUS and other groups to schedule additional hearings across the country, beyond the ones attended by a couple of hundred people in Cody, Wyoming, and Bozeman, Montana. But the agency had promised to reopen the federal public comment period after more was known about state plans. For its part, the Wyoming Fish and Game Commission had fast-tracked its bear management plan, scheduling eight hearings within a week, closing the public comment period after only a month and then approving the proposal. The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission had announced it would accept public comments through June 18. And the Idaho Fish and Game Commission was scheduled to meet to discuss how to manage the bears. The HSUS, the Center for Biological Diversity and a Wyoming wildlife filmmaker are suing Wyoming to get its comment period reopened so that more residents can voice their opinions on the proposed management plan.

The proposed delisting is U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s second attempt to remove grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The first, in 2007, failed when a judge ruled the agency had not adequately considered declines in the bears’ food sources. Now the agency, under pressure from Western Republicans who dominate Congressional wildlife committees, is back, with a report written by federal scientists that finds the bears have enough food.

If Mattson sees the bears as the miracle worth saving, for agency director Dan Ashe it’s the Endangered Species Act itself that must be protected: “It’s like any tool, we need to not overuse it, or it will break,” he says. But delisting is a move advocates have seen before with wolves and many other animals—one that, in several cases, has quickly led to massive sport hunting and trapping programs and has had little impact on the ESA itself.

“Handing over management to hostile state politicians, without any federal oversight at all, has not been a success story,” says Michael Markarian, chief operating officer for The HSUS. “Our country spends millions of dollars trying to bring species like wolves or grizzly bears back from the brink of extinction, and as soon as they’re delisted, they are subjected to trophy hunting and harmful practices that were responsible for their decline in the first place.”

In March, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared success: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears had recovered. Not so well hidden in the agency’s announcement was more bad news for the bears. In an unusual move, the GYE grizzlies would be singled out from the 1,000 or so other grizzlies in the lower 48, declared a “distinct population segment” and delisted. Under the conditions the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is proposing, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho could allow trophy hunting outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton. They could also allow unlimited trophy hunting outside an agency-designated Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA) that covers 19,000 square miles in and around the parks.

During the Bozeman hearing—at which people speaking against delisting outnumbered people speaking in favor 5-to-1—Matt Hogan, director of the agency’s Mountain-Prairie region, played down the possibility of hunting. “There is a potential that the states could choose to have hunting seasons on bears,” he told a reporter for the local NBC affiliate. However, Hogan, who worked for Safari Club International and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation in the 1990s and early 2000s, must know trophy hunting is a near certainty. In late 2015, according to a leaked memo, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho were already planning how to divvy up hunting rights to the bears. Based on the territory they govern in the DMA, Wyoming would get 58 percent of the bears that could be hunted, Montana would get 34 percent and Idaho would get 8 percent. At the time, the states planned to kill 72 bears the first year after delisting (the U.S. Fish & Wildlife rule, issues later, reduced that number to 15 to 20).

It’s unclear where the states would find the money for annual bear counts needed to update population numbers and set hunting quotas. Though federal law requires that the size of the population be monitored for at least five years, there would be no guarantee of enough state and federal funding to supply the several million dollars a year necessary to do this once the federal government turns that responsibility over to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, says HSUS staff attorney Nicholas Arrivo. Purchases of a limited number of hunting permits would not be enough. In Wyoming, for example, they would cost just $600 apiece for in-state hunters and $6,000 for those out-of-state. In Montana, they would cost just $150 each for residents. If the number of grizzlies were to fall below 500—the number at which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service believes its viability would be threatened—the only tool available to the agency would be to relist the bears on an emergency basis, suspending trophy hunting for a maximum of 240 days. But a lot of time might pass before such a decline became apparent, and hunting would continue in the months between when monitors did their counts and the bears were once again protected, meaning the number of grizzlies could drop even further.

Despite the uncertainty, Ashe says at a certain point the federal government has to turn responsibility for the bear conservation over to the states, trusting that they will not allow too many bears to be killed.

“We need to reestablish and reground hunting as part of an ethical tradition,” he said at an HSUS-sponsored conference on carnivores in October. “If we delist, there would be an allowable rate of mortality designed to ensure sustainability.”

  • The future of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem depends on the ability of mothers like 399 to survive, reproduce and fend off dangers to their cubs. Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen/www.mangelsen.com.

Mattson and a majority of experts who responded to a researcher’s survey disagree. They do not believe the Great Yellowstone Ecosystem population has recovered enough to be delisted and subject to hunting. In recent years, its growth has slowed and leveled off. At the same time, the grizzlies have spread out, expanding their range by 40 percent into areas with more cattle, sheep and people, especially east and southeast of Yellowstone. There are now more bears living outside the parks than within. More grizzlies are dying in conflicts with people. (And if hunting resumes, all grizzlies outside the parks could be targeted.)

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says bears are moving out of the parks because the population has reached the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, which the agency estimates as 600 grizzlies. But Mattson says it’s because there is less for them to eat in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Gone: protein-rich whitebark pine nuts, which helped female grizzlies fatten up for hibernation and pregnancy. Fires, prolonged droughts, white pine blister rust and the mountain pine beetle, an insect that has multiplied with the warming climate, destroyed most of the trees between 1995 and 2005. Also gone: cutthroat trout, because of invasive lake trout.

In the absence of these foods, bears are eating army cutworm moths on talus slopes outside Yellowstone and females are killing more elk, bison and moose. This brings them into contact with males, who kill cubs to mate with females, and with human hunters going after these big prey animals. Bears are also reappearing, after a century, in places where humans live—people who may not be willing to spend money on bear-proof garbage containers or to stop putting out birdseed. Grizzly deaths are up. Fewer cubs are surviving. And Mattson expects these trends to continue, particularly if army cutworm moths and elk numbers decline as projected.

“I don’t think the population can sustain any increase in mortality,” he says. “In fact, the population will continue to decline unless we actually reduce the number of bears dying from all causes.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service dismisses such concerns, saying the bears are omnivores and are adapting, finding other food sources. Mattson has asked to see the taxpayer-funded data on which agency scientists base their conclusions. He has submitted numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. But he says all the data turned over to him has been heavily redacted, with the locations of bears removed. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tells him if it releases such data, the information might fall into the hands of poachers.

“It’s not a matter of good intentions, because all of these government scientists would think of themselves as rigorous,” says Mattson. “But everybody’s biased. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is not a neutral player. They have been committed to getting the grizzly bears delisted.”

If the grizzlies are delisted, the trophy hunting that follows will have effects far beyond individual bears shot, says Robert Wielgus of Washington State University. He has watched trophy hunting of grizzlies in Canada create losses so severe it was stopped in Alberta and may soon be stopped in British Columbia. When an adult male grizzly is killed, Wielgus explains, several young adult males move into his territory. They fight with each other and kill the cubs of females they want to mate with. This drives females into food-poor areas or places where humans live, reducing how many cubs they give birth to and how many survive. And each bear lost has a devastating impact on this predator population, which under the best conditions might grow at 3 percent a year. That’s far below the 30 percent a year growth of prey animal populations such as deer.

  • The range for grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has decreased dramatically. Many scientists believe the bears’ future depends on them moving between the GYE and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), making possible an exchange of genes. Trophy hunting would block this.

“Grizzly bears haven’t evolved to be hunted like game,” Wielgus says. “If they hunt them [around Yellowstone], I don’t see how the bear population could continue to stay at the level it is now. It would pretty much have to decline.”

A lot depends on the details of the state management plans, says Kerry Gunther, bear management biologist at Yellowstone, who has studied the grizzlies there for 33 years. As one example, if the states only allow trophy hunting in areas where grizzlies are already killed because of human-bear conflicts, it’s far less likely to reduce bear numbers by much or to remove more adult males and cause influxes of young males, he says. As another example, the locations where Montana allows hunting will be crucial in determining whether the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bears can expand north and link up with the thousand or so bears in the Northern Continental Divide on the Canadian border, increasing the populations’ genetic diversity.

To protect bears inside the 3,468-square-mile park, Yellowstone is asking the states not to allow hunting close to the perimeter. (Wielgus suggests a buffer equal to the diameter of a male bear’s 200-to-500-square-mile home range.) At risk is the unique opportunity that visitors now have to observe grizzlies, Gunther says. Genetically, hunting will leave behind bears who are more wary of humans.

“It could affect people’s ability to see bears in the park, and the bear viewing industry,” he says. Bear tourism generates as estimated $10 million a year for the park and several times that amount for the local economy.

Also at risk, of course, are the individual roadside bears, especially those such as 399 who live in the smaller of the two parks, Grand Teton, and so move more frequently into surrounding areas where hunts could take place.

The states may ban hunting bears with cubs, as the memorandum of understanding between the three states outlines (Montana’s plan would only allow hunting of solitary animals). They may also ban hunting during the part of the year when females, who emerge from dens later and go into hibernation earlier, are more likely to be killed (Montana’s plan would do this). But mother bears, upon which the survival of the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies depend, could still be taken. That includes 399, until now so adept at living with people.

Todd Wilkinson, an environmental journalist, has chronicled 399’s story in a book with photographer Tom Mangelsen, called Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399. He worries that the famous bear, whom trophy hunters are already threatening to kill, will die if hunting resumes. It would be a horrifying call to action for the growing constituency of Americans who see grizzlies not as animals to be feared or eliminated, but as a national treasure, Wilkinson says.

“[Bear] 399 is our transboundary lion,” he says, referring to Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer’s infamous killing of an animal lured out of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park last July. “[Bear] 399 is our Cecil.”

In the coming months, a relatively small number of federal and state officials will decide the fate of the 700 or so bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: a window into a story of migration that’s 80 millenniums old. A marvelous remnant. Intelligent animals who have adapted to survive in ways found nowhere else on Earth.

Even if you lay aside concerns over whether the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has correctly interpreted the data it is withholding from the wider scientific community, or whether the fish and game departments of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho can be trusted to serve as faithful stewards of this little group of animals. Even if you ignore worries over whether the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears can make it through yet another challenge to their survival—whether they will be adequately monitored and continue to enjoy enough protections outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton that the population remains viable. And even if you shrug off the possibility that the magic that brings millions to the parks will evaporate as hunters target the very animals tourists have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to see. Still the question remains: Why hunt the bears?

Instead of letting a few trophy hunters kill bears, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service could wait and keep the grizzlies listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Or the agency could refuse to delist them unless states ban trophy hunting. Why take the chance of hunting the bears? Why not simply be grateful that we have the grizzlies at all, that they were saved, not only for the residents of Wyoming, and Montana and Idaho, but for all Americans, for people everywhere? Why not appreciate the wonder that in this time when so much is being lost, these bears improbably survive?

Speak out for grizzlies: Sign The HSUS petition to keep grizzly bears protected »

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