Groups challenge grizzly hunt on news of another dead female

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The confirmation of a previously unrecorded female grizzly bear death in 2017 should cause the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to stop part of a hunt planned for Sept. 1, six conservation groups say.

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Wyoming set its grizzly hunt rules based on flawed information available in January, the groups said in a letter to the state commission and department director Scott Talbott on Monday. Officials have confirmed that the January information was inaccurate and that at least one more female grizzly bear than previously counted died in a key census area.

The new information “has serious implications for the hunt,” said Bonnie Rice, senior representative, Greater Yellowstone-Northern Rockies regions for Sierra Club. “The department should not be holding a hunt … in the [core Yellowstone] Demographic Monitoring Area,” she told WyoFile in an interview.

The groups “demand immediate action, to ensure that Wyoming does not open a hunting season that threatens the survival of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears…” the letter states (see below). “In light of this new information … the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Commission must adjust fall 2018 hunt quotas downward,” the letter says.

The Game and Fish Department is “in touch with the Attorney General’s office to figure out a response to that letter,” agency spokesman Renny MacKay said Monday. The commission, which sets regulations, has no meetings scheduled before the hunt is set to begin.

Wyoming’s grizzly hunt is to occur in two main zones, including the core 19,270-square-mile demographic monitoring area where one female and up to nine male bears could be killed under Wyoming rules. This area in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks (no hunting is contemplated in the parks) is where Montana, Idaho and Wyoming agreed to maintain a population of at least 500 grizzlies.

Wyoming hunters could shoot another dozen bears outside the DMA under regulations the state passed earlier this year. Monday’s protest letter focuses on the core population and the hunt scheduled there, the first in more than 40 years.

Wyoming’s grizzly hunt areas for 2018. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

A tri-state memorandum of agreement that pledged to maintain the 500-bear minimum enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017 to remove the species from federal protection and enable hunting. The agreement spells out how to determine whether there are enough grizzly bears, and of what sex, to allow “discretionary mortality” through hunting.

When the three states met in January to hash out numbers, only 20 female grizzly mortalities were on the books for 2017, the groups say. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which monitors populations nationwide, recently released an annual report that puts estimated female mortality for 2017 at at least 21 bears, the groups said. Additional dead bears were found in the spring, and at least one was a female.

Representatives for the Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Wyoming Untrapped, WildEarth Guardians and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates signed the letter.

The new count means Wyoming’s allocation for “discretionary mortalities” for female grizzly bears in the DMA is less than one, the groups wrote. “…[A]pplying the IGBST’s updated count of at least 21 adult female deaths … results in Wyoming having less than one female bear available for hunting this year within the DMA (0.87 female bear at the most).”

“A major concern”

“This is a major concern,” the groups said. Because it is difficult to tell the difference between male and female grizzlies in the field, Wyoming should call off part of its hunt, the letter says. By mistakenly killing just one bear of the wrong sex, the hunt would exceed the limit for female bear mortalities, according to the groups.

“Given the likelihood of a female bear being mistakenly killed by a hunter who shoots it believing it to be a male bear, Wyoming should not conduct a hunt in the DMA in 2018,” the letter says.

Wyoming itself recognized the difficulty of sexing bears while on a hunt and so set up a system to have only one hunter in the DMA field at a time. Should a hunter shoot a male grizzly, another hunter could venture forth under state regulations. But once a female is shot, the DMA hunt would end to ensure Wyoming does not exceed the agreed-to mortality limit for female grizzlies.

“Sufficient time remains to reduce hunting quotas before irreparable harm exceeding even the initially projected impact of the hunt is inflicted on the population,” the groups wrote. “The [tri-state] MOA, Conservation Strategy, and the Commission’s own Chapter 67 regulation require that this change be made.”

MacKay said researchers sometimes discover dead grizzly bears in the year after they die. “It’s always been contemplated that it would be factored into mortality in years to come,” he said.

But the MOA that governs killing limits has several provisions that appear straightforward. The states pledged to “[e]nsure annual total mortality rates are not exceeded within the DMA for independent males, independent females and dependent young…” The MOA also states that when there are more than 600 bears in the DMA, as is the situation today, any mortality above the allowable limit will be carried over to be accounted for in the following year.

The states also pledged to use the best science available and use adaptive management. The MOA also sets the annual conference among the three states for January “to review population monitoring data supplied by IGBST and collectively establish discretionary mortality limits for regulated harvest for each jurisdiction (MT, ID, WY) in the DMA.”

The groups asked for a response by July 23.

This story was originally published in WyoFile and is republished here with permission.