State wildlife managers Thursday took a much-anticipated step toward allowing hunters to set their rifle sights on grizzly bears for the first time since the 1970s.
Meeting in Douglas, Wyoming Game and Fish Department staffers asked their governing board for permission to draft hunting regulations. The request was granted, which means that in the coming weeks biologists and wardens will pore over maps to devise grizzly hunting boundaries and come up with proposals for how many bears could be killed.
It’s a development Game and Fish Chief Warden Brian Nesvik sees as “part of the success story” of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly population.
“There certainly is the opportunity biologically for there to be a grizzly bear season,” Nesvik said. “Grizzly bears have recovered to a point that they can be managed similar to other large carnivores in the ecosystem.”
Wildlife managers say public meetings held across Wyoming steered them toward pursuing a grizzly hunt. The sentiment was clearly pro-hunting, Nesvik said, though in the Jackson area there was more of a 50-50 split for and against.
Nesvik expects draft hunting seasons to be issued by mid- to late February, after which there will be another round of public meetings and opportunity to comment. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is scheduled to take up the regulations at a May 23 meeting, he said.
A number of hunting policies are already in place, set when grizzlies were being removed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the list of “threatened” species last year.
Licenses will cost $600 for residents and $6,000 for nonresidents. Sow bears with cubs — and the young bears themselves — are protected from hunting. Successful hunters must report kills to the agency within 24 hours. Hunting will not be allowed if the ecosystem’s population dips below 600.
Conservation advocacy groups have largely stood in opposition to trophy hunting of grizzly bears.
Center for Biological Diversity attorney Andrea Santarsiere, a Victor, Idaho, resident, said that the move to OK grizzly bear hunting so soon after delisting was “disheartening.”
“It really leaves no opportunity to see how bears would fare as a state-managed species without hunting,” she said. “We’re opposed to trophy hunting, and we will fight tooth and nail against any Wyoming regulation permitting hunting grizzly bears.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2017 decision to let Wyoming, Montana and Idaho manage grizzlies triggered no fewer than six lawsuits, though those complaints will likely be consolidated.
The Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association had a much different reception to news of impending grizzly hunting regulations. Jeff Smith, the group’s president, said he’s on board for whatever Game and Fish proposes.
“We are dang sure supportive of hunting them,” Smith said, “because we hunt everything else in Wyoming.”