Fractions of grizzly bears are the topic of a dispute between Wyoming officials looking to authorize a hunt, the state of Montana and wildlife advocates dead set against hunting.
The source of confusion and disagreement is a tristate plan that allocates and sets caps on how many grizzlies Wyoming, Montana and Idaho can hunt in the Yellowstone region’s interior “demographic monitoring area.” The agreement outlines each state’s annual maximum grizzly harvest: In 2018 Wyoming was capped at 9.86 male bears and 1.45 females, Montana at 5.78 males and 0.85 females and Idaho at 1.36 males and 0.2 females.
Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission elected not to hunt grizzlies this year or share any of its quota with neighboring Wyoming and Idaho. But a Wyoming official’s gaffe last week led to speculation that there had been a backroom arrangement.
“The folks that I talked to didn’t have a discussion [with Wyoming] that said it was OK to round up and take some of our mortality,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Greg Lemon said. “At our Feb. 14 meeting our commission clearly made the decision that Montana wasn’t going to reallocate our mortality to any of the other states.”
Not sharing covered everything, Lemon said, including fractions of bears.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Large Carnivore Manager Dan Thompson said otherwise last week in Jackson when explaining how his agency rounded up its hunting quotas to 10 males and two females. Montana gave Wyoming permission to use a fraction of its grizzly allotment to round up, he said. Thompson corrected the record in an interview Tuesday with the News&Guide.
“I’ll take full credit for saying some wrong word, such as transfer,” Thompson said. “At the tristate meeting, we all agreed that rounding was OK as long as it didn’t result in an increase in the overall allocation. We didn’t agree to take their allocation.”
The reason 1.45 sow grizzlies rounded to two bears instead of one, he said, is because Wyoming never viewed its female allocation as 1.45, but rather as 1.5.
“Because it was a fractional number we went out one decimal place,” Thompson said.
Wyoming would not have rounded up to two females, he said, if Montana was grizzly hunting this year, and planning to kill a female bear. The reason is because then three sows could have been hunted in the monitoring area, a number that tops the 2 1/2 female bear threshold.
It would be “inappropriate” to hunt two female bears in Wyoming if Montana was hunting females, too, Thompson said, “because that would result in an increase in the total allocation.”
A broad coalition of conservation groups and grizzly bear advocates brought the fractional grizzly bear issue to light.
The Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Grizzly Times, Wyoming Untrapped and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates signed and sent a letter to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Monday explaining their displeasure.
“The transfer of a fractional share of grizzly mortality is significant,” the groups wrote. “In this case Montana has enabled an additional female and male grizzly bear to be trophy hunted in Wyoming this fall.”
Center for Biological Diversity attorney Andrea Santarsiere, a Victor, Idaho, resident, said the loss of two bears isn’t trivial.
“That female bear could be carrying cubs,” she said. “So taking that female could actually be taking five bears out of the population.”
The grizzly bear population in the monitoring area was last estimated at 718, and there is an untold additional number of bears outside the zone on the Yellowstone region’s periphery. Wyoming’s proposed overall hunt — both inside and outside of the monitoring area — will target a maximum of 23 grizzlies.
If Wyoming and Idaho’s planned fall 2018 grizzly hunts go forward they will be the first in the Lower 48 since the early 1970s. Hunting has been illegal in the interim because of a decades-running Endangered Species Act listing.
The maximum hunting quotas for Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are dictated by a formula based on the percentage of each state the monitoring area encompasses. Wyoming gets 58 percent of the allocation, Montana 34 percent and Idaho 8 percent. Other variables in the equation include the latest population estimate, how many bears died the previous year and mortality thresholds for independent male and female bears.
A tristate agreement that was required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls for the states to huddle each winter, pore over the numbers and divvy up hunting quotas. It was at the Jan. 11 meeting, the first since delisting, that the states agreed to the basic premise of rounding.
Lemon, from Fish, Wildlife and Parks, conceded that the states could have done a better job of talking to each other.
“This is the first year of trying to work through this [agreement], and I think what it demonstrates is that communication has be clear, not just between the agencies but clearly with our own commission,” Lemon said. “It’s clear that we didn’t communicate well enough with our commission that there had been this discussion about rounding.”
Sierra Club staffer Bonnie Rice called for the states to open the doors to the tristate meetings, since they concern a topic of immense public interest: grizzly hunting and management.
“Nobody in the public even knew that meeting was happening,” Rice said. “You have these behind-the-scenes deals happening, and nobody knows about it.”
Rice was puzzled how Wyoming justified rounding from 1.45 female grizzlies to two in the absence of transferring allocations.
“Since Wyoming is supposedly being cautious and conservative with their hunting proposal, I would think if anything they would round down,” she said. “I think they just want to maximize the number of bears that can be killed in that trophy hunt.”
Thompson shot down the charge. Wyoming, he said, is committed to ensuring that mortality caps on male and female grizzlies are not breached because of hunting.
“We didn’t look at this and say, ‘How can we twist it to kill more bears?’” Thompson said.
If Game and Fish does find it misstepped, there’s still time to change the plans. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is scheduled to vote on the grizzly hunting plans at its May 24 meeting in Lander.
“Everything is still in draft form and nothing has been decided yet,” Thompson said. “If things have to be changed because of further discussions and the public process, then they surely can.”
Changing the number of female grizzlies targeted would influences how the hunt plays out logistically. The way Wyoming’s hunt is now set up, no more than two hunters are being allowed into the field at a time to ensure the two-sow limit isn’t surpassed in the monitoring area. If Wyoming changed the limit to one female, the number of hunters allowed in the field would also fall to one.