Hunting grizzly bears should be part of the strategy for their management after the species no longer needs federal protection, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee decided on Thursday.
“We have grizzly populations expanding into places that are not suitable habitat,” committee chairman Harv Fosgren of the U.S. Forest Service said. “We need to show we’re willing to step up and manage those bears.”
But he also stressed hunting was only one of many tools available to help grizzlies after their populations have recovered to healthy levels. And no hunting will occur until the bears are delisted and states have set up their own management plans.
Grizzlies remain a threatened species in the continental United States, although they may be hunted in Alaska and Canada. About 1,000 grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem north of Interstate 90 in Montana. Another 600 live in the Yellowstone Ecosystem surrounding Yellowstone National Park. A few more tiny populations live in northwest Montana, Idaho and Washington.
The IGBC approved a delisting plan for the Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly population in 2010, but it has been blocked in court. The committee hopes to have a new plan ready by the end of 2013.
Thursday’s statement says grizzlies could be hunted according to state laws after they are delisted from the ESA. Hunting would help “manage distribution, promote coexistence and help minimize conflict” with the bears.
The full statement reads: “In recovered and delisted grizzly bear populations, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) supports the use of regulated hunting following the principles of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation as one approach to help manage numbers and distribution of bears to promote coexistence and help minimize conflict. Although specifics regarding the hunting of a recovered grizzly bear population will be unique to the ecosystem and legal jurisdictions involved, IGBC supports hunting regulations that reflect the best available science, are adaptable to changing factors, are established in a public process, and are consistent with standards in the ecosystem specific Conservation Strategies. Ecosystem specific Conservation Strategies are the post-delisting management plans that guide population and habitat management as required by the Endangered Species Act.”
Committee members struggled with the wording of the statement for almost two hours. Concerns included how to explain why hunting was important and whether saying anything now would derail other important grizzly bear recovery work.
The word-smithing highlighted several sensitive parts of grizzly bear management. For instance:
• The second word of the first sentence got the most debate. The draft read “In recovered grizzly bear populations…” Several members wanted to add “delisted.” The difference is that recovered is a biological term, meaning the population has exceeded a scientifically measurable level. Delisted is a political term.
In 2010, Congress ordered gray wolves delisted while a court case was still debating whether the population was recovered. Committee members decided they needed both words to say grizzlies shouldn’t be hunted until they were recovered and delisted.
• Timing. Some members wanted the hunting statement done months ago. Some thought it shouldn’t be released until the bears are recovered, which could be 2014 or later. For a few minutes on Thursday, it looked like the draft might be sent back and finalized over a conference call in a few weeks.
Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Director Jim Unsworth pushed for sooner over later, and suggested using the meeting’s computer projector to type and display changes as the debate went on.
Fosgren noted there was something of a which-came-first question: Was the committee developing a hunting policy because it was needed, or because the media and outside observers kept asking if it had one? He added that although the winter meeting had worked on new ways of reviewing bear-resistant trash cans, authorized lots of research and other work in four major grizzly recovery zones, committed new attention to the now bear-free Bitterroot Mountains and other matters, the hunting policy was probably going to be the top of the news.
“We’re already there,” observed Ken McDonald of Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Whether we adopt a policy or not, the people are going there. They’re asking, as soon as you delist them, can you hunt them?”
And getting a hunting policy done now could head off other problems. Montana’s Legislature is already drafting wildlife bills for its January session, and Idaho and Wyoming may be close behind.
But the states’ wildlife managers don’t yet have any authority over the bears. As Mary Gibson Scott of the National Park Service pointed out, “I totally get the state (wildlife agencies’) concern about freelancing legislative fixes.” The IGBC policy should clearly state delisting and recovery must come first, followed by fully reviewed state management plans, before any grizzly winds up in a hunter’s crosshairs.
• Why hunting? Fosgren said the committee not only had to say what kind of hunting policy it supported, but why hunting was necessary at all.
The draft version read hunting was essential “to managing distribution and density” of bears. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Chris Servheen pointed out its almost impossible to control the density of bear populations. If you don’t like having grizzlies hanging around a ranch on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, you can try to push them all away from there, but you can’t adjust them from five bears to two.
So the committee erased “density.” But it added “to promote coexistence and help minimize conflict.” That’s because wildlife managers have found that allowing hunting can actually build social and political support for animals.
For a while, members considered calling hunting “a tool” for managing bears. Sterling Miller of the National Wildlife Federation pointed out hunters often don’t like being referred to as “tools.” The word was changed to “approach.”