Federal wildlife managers will allow up to 11 male and female grizzly bears to be killed over the next three years in a 323-square-mile public land grazing complex east of Jackson.
Nine grizzly bears have been killed since 2012 for killing cattle and sheep on U.S. Forest Service rangeland in the Upper Green River drainage, the most conflict-prone portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wildlife managers and livestock producers were approaching the limit of 11 grizzly deaths allowed over a three-year period last week when the count was reset.
“Typically when we write a new Biological Opinion, we reset the clock,” said Mark Sattelberg, a field supervisor in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wyoming field office. “It’s a standard practice.”
Besides restarting the three-year clock, the biggest change is that the female grizzly bear limit of three animals that could be killed in any three-year period is no longer being enforced by Fish and Wildlife, the Biological Opinion said. The document sets limits on activities that result in harm or death to species such as grizzlies, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Before issuing the new Biological Opinion, no more female grizzlies could have been removed from the population this year.
In a statement, the Sierra Club blasted Fish and Wildlife’s new grizzly mortality limits in the Upper Green.
“Federal agencies have once again bowed to political pressure and increased the number of grizzly bears that can be killed in the Upper Green, while failing to require additional meaningful measures to reduce those conflicts,” said Bonnie Rice, the Sierra Club’s senior representative for the Greater Yellowstone area.
“At least 15 grizzly bears have been intentionally killed in the Upper Green because of conflicts with livestock since 2010,” the statement said, “and the Upper Green area accounted for 100 percent of livestock-related female grizzly bear losses in the Greater Yellowstone region in 2011 and 2013.”
Conflict between the “51 to 60 bears” that are estimated to live in the study area and 7,500 sheep and 22,500 cattle that graze the Upper Green has become chronic, Forest Service documents show.
From 2009 to 2011 there were 154 confirmed grizzly conflicts in the Upper Green, a March 2014 “Biological Assessment” shows. The document is a precursor to the Biological Opinion.
The 154 conflicts amounts to 23 percent of all grizzly-human conflicts that occurred in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in that three-year period.
The grazing allotments spill over the hydrological divide between the Snake and Green rivers, and include Bridger-Teton National Forest land deep in the Gros Ventre River drainage.
Albert Sommers, a rancher who heads the Green River Valley Cattlemen’s Association, frequently sees the end result when livestock and bears cross paths in the Upper Green.
“It’s an issue,” Sommers said. “It certainly is.”
Sommers, also a Wyoming House representative for Sublette County, said the elimination of the female grizzly sub-quota was a “positive.”
“I think it gives managers more flexibility in dealing with issues,” he said. “There’s lot of females up there in the system.
“I worry a little bit about the take limit on relocations,” Sommers said. “Relocations are our avenue to avoid killing.”
The Biological Opinion allows a maximum of 18 grizzly bear relocations from the Upper Green over any three-year period, which is a new standard.
The relocation count is now ticking.
Three days after the decision document was released to the public, a grizzly was relocated from the Gypsum Creek grazing unit. The week before that a male grizzly was killed there.
“They were doing pretty good in Gyp, and then boom,” Sommers said.
In 2014 there have been more than 50 confirmed livestock killings in the Upper Green, he said.
“If it wasn’t for the state of Wyoming reimbursing us for our losses, it would be very difficult to stay on the landscape,” Sommers said.
Calves are going for up to $1,200 a head right now, he said, and multipliers are applied to each confirmed kill.
Chris Colligan, wildlife program coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, was also displeased by federal wildlife and land managers’ decision.
“We were hoping for meaningful changes that would reduce conflicts,” Colligan said. “There could have been additional conservation measures. Anything that would have attempted to reduce conflicts for grizzly bears in a way that would have reduced mortality.”
Sommers shot down the suggestion of doing more to reduce grizzly-livestock conflicts.
“I know the environmental community is up in arms,” he said. “We’re not unwilling to try things to solve these problems, it’s just that we can’t think of anything more to do.
“When they’re predating, I don’t want riders out there in the middle of the night waving flashlights and getting in trouble,” Sommers said. “I’ve been chased by a bear on a horse and it’s not a very comfortable feeling, trust me.”
The latest Fish and Wildlife decision is the third time the agency has boosted the grizzly kill cap since 1999.
“We knew the bears were expanding, we just didn’t know how far or how fast,” Sattelberg said. “We think we’ve taken that into account in the incidental take statement, so we’re hoping that we don’t have to do it again.”