Biologists: Grizzly numbers hold steady around Yellowstone

In this Sept. 25, 2013, file photo, a grizzly bear cub forages for food a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner. While Idaho and Wyoming pursue plans to allow grizzly bear hunting outside Yellowstone National Park, Montana has decided against a hunt.

Opponents of Wyoming’s planned grizzly bear hunting season accused Montana officials of sharing some of its bear mortality quota, despite public comments by its wildlife managers that sharing wouldn’t happen.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials say no sharing was authorized. Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials were in transit on Monday and did not return phone messages seeking clarification.

Wyoming was allowed to hunt 1.5 female grizzlies and 9.8 males in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, according to an agreement with Montana and Idaho. But its wildlife officials announced a hunting season with two females and 10 males for 2018. The hunt opponents claim Wyoming officials said they were able to round up the numbers by using a fraction of Montana’s quota.

Representatives of the Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Grizzly Times, Wyoming Untrapped and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates signed an April 24 letter to FWP Director Martha Williams and the commission members questioning Wyoming’s numbers.

Sierra Club Greater Yellowstone/Northern Rockies representative Bonnie Rice said she was at one of the Wyoming public meetings where the swap was discussed.

“This kind of behind-the-scenes meeting, with this kind of bartering, especially if it was unknown to the Montana commissioners, is very concerning,” Rice said on Monday. “It’s happening out of the public eye and contradicts what the public heard at the commission meeting.”

On Monday evening, FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said no one in Montana had agreed to share part of its 2018 quota. Montana was allocated .9 females and 5.8 males, while Idaho was allowed .1 female and .9 males.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal Endangered Species Act protection from about 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem last July, handing management of the bears over to the three state wildlife agencies. A memorandum of agreement among the states set an allowable annual hunting limit intended to keep the population from dropping back to threatened levels. It was mathematically divided among the states, resulting in each state getting some fractions of bears in its quota.

“The MOA was not very directive on how to handle fractional allocations, like .9 or 1.5,” Lemon said. “The states agreed rounding was the only way to deal with the fractional mortality, but nobody had a proposal when they met in January. When we went to the (FWP) Commission in February, they decided very clearly in their motion that we (Montana) would not have a hunt and we would retain our mortality. We said we did not want to share. And we have not given our allocation to anyone.”

Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Andrea Santarsiere attended a separate Wyoming grizzly hunting meeting where she said Wyoming officials discussed the Montana transfer.

“I asked them how they came to the point they thought they could hunt 10 males and two females,” Santarsiere said on Monday. “A Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman told me they had spoken to Montana FWP and they had agreed to give them the fraction they would need to round those up.”

The federal government faces several lawsuits challenging its decision to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies. At a March preliminary hearing in Missoula, the judge overseeing the suits advised all involved to have their cases ready to argue by August so a decision might be reached before Wyoming’s scheduled grizzly hunting season starts in September.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.