Wyoming politicians are shrugging off the rule of law by advancing legislation that calls for wildlife managers to come up with rules for hunting the state’s federally protected grizzly bears.
Grizzly bears, which number around 700 in the tristate Yellowstone ecosystem, are once again classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and, thus, illegal to hunt. That fact did not deter the Wyoming Senate on Wednesday from passing a first reading of SF93, a bill that authorizes the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to promulgate rules for hunting grizzlies.
The grizzly hunting bill’s language is permissive — filled with “mays,” not “shalls” — an important distinction for Game and Fish officials who probably aren’t keen on serving prison time, Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Fremont, told fellow senators.
“The reason we don’t say shall is because we can’t ask our Game and Fish people to be convicted felons,” Bebout said. “That’s what it would do if we did that.”
Wyoming was hours away from hunting its grizzlies for the first time in 44 years this past fall when U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen granted a restraining order blocking a hunt. Weeks later, he issued an opinion siding with environmental groups and Native American tribes, revoking the state’s jurisdiction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and states involved are appealing.
Several senators who addressed the floor Wednesday were clearly irked by the judicial intervention.
“It’s really hard to believe that a federal judge in Montana is telling Wyoming what to do with its hunting licenses on Wyoming land,” said Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Campbell. “The best part of this bill is that if we happen to win that [appeal] lawsuit in San Francisco, it means that immediately our agency can move forward on a hunt. I have many people in my district that are willing to do that, and they’re so excited.”
One other piece of grizzly legislation is still alive in Wyoming’s 2019 legislative session. House Joint Resolution 01 asks the federal government to once again delist grizzlies as soon as possible.
Another bill that was voted down in committee Wednesday would have created a fund that would help people pay medical bills incurred by grizzly bear maulings. The sponsor of that legislation, Rep. Mike Greear, R-Bighorn/Washakie, told the Jackson Hole Daily last week that he would oppose the grizzly hunting bill, given the species’ legal status.
“That’s kind of pissing in the wind,” Greear said.
The Wyoming Legislative Service Office had not posted the roll call from the Wednesday vote by press time, but the motion was met with a roar of ayes and just a few nays — and a playful growl.
The grizzly hunting bill drew jeers from one hunting advocacy group that’s been actively lobbying in Cheyenne this session.
“I don’t think it’s a good bill,” Wyoming Wildlife Federation Executive Director Dwayne Meadows said, who advocated letting the current appeals process play out.
Seasoned grizzly activist Louisa Willcox said that defiant grizzly legislation like SF93 does no favors for conservation.
“Bills that call for a hunt regardless of listing are distracting and destructive,” Willcox said. “It’s not helpful.”
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s wildlife program coordinator, Chris Colligan, also scolded lawmakers.
“The idea that the Legislature is endorsing illegal activity under the Endangered Species Act is really deeply concerning,” Colligan said. “If their goal is to expedite management, this doesn’t help.”
But some senators who addressed the floor Wednesday said they perceive the grizzly population as having grown out of control, and the situation as urgent. Sen. Ogden Driskoll, R-Crook/Campbell/Weston, said it’s “absolutely critical” the Legislature send the message that Wyoming wants to manage its game.
“This story’s getting nothing but worse until we get after it,” Driskoll said.