Wyoming wildlife officials gathering in Rock Springs on Friday plan to discuss the idea of requiring hunters to carry bear spray in the grizzly-occupied Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Such a mandate is perhaps unlikely. The reason it’s coming up before the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is because seven environmental activist groups petitioned the state agency and its governor-appointed board.
“Bear spray is not ‘brains in a can,’ ” the groups wrote, “and petitioners do not suggest that it alone can substitute for comprehensive best practices when recreating in grizzly bear range.
“But as grizzly-hunting encounters continue to increase in frequency and lethality, regulatory action is needed to reduce avoidable death and injury to bears and hunters,” the petition states. “The proposed regulation represents a simple and proven way to achieve these ends.”
A bear spray mandate wouldn’t be pioneering. Such regulations already exist for elk hunters who use Grand Teton National Park. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, however, has never attempted to promulgate a must-carry rule for the hunters it licenses to pursue game each fall in the Yellowstone region.
Wyoming Game and Fish is not taking a formal position on the petition, director Brian Nesvik said. Anecdotally, he said, the reception to such a regulation among his staff would be “pretty darn mixed.”
“In general our folks think that [bear spray is] important for people who are going to recreate, whether it’s for hunting or any other kind of recreation,” Nesvik said. “We do not have any kind of policy that mandates it [for employees], but the department provides bear spray and I don’t know any of our employees that don’t carry it.”
The seven groups that signed onto the petition are the Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Watersheds Project, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and WildEarth Guardians. The seven-page document, mailed to the department in April, is attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com.
Their petition summarizes scientific studies that establish bear spray as the most effective means of deterring bears, including even lethal tools like firearms. One seminal Alaskan study that looked at two decades of data found that the capsicum propellent deterred bruins before humans sustained injury 98% of the time. Discharging firearms during grizzly encounters, by contrast, resulted in human injury 54% of the time during one eight-year period assessed by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
Petitioners also reasoned that a mandate was necessary because conflict between grizzlies and hunters has soared into uncharted territory. Hunters defensively killed 15 grizzlies during 2017 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is a record. In all but one of the last seven years, there have been at least three human injuries from grizzly encounters.
The Game and Fish Commission has budgeted 20 minutes to review the bear spray petition, and the agenda slates the discussion for 3:50 p.m. Friday. The meeting will be live streamed; the feed can be accessed at WGFD.wyo.gov/about-us/game-and-fish-commission.
The outcome Friday could go one of two ways, Nesvik said: The commission could opt to end the conversation, or it could direct the department to prepare a draft regulation.
“I would expect that they will give it fair and full consideration,” Nesvik said.