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The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on Tuesday approved a revised plan for managing grizzly bear mortality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Before the state can petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove grizzlies from the endangered species list, as Gov. Mark Gordon announced in September, the memorandum of agreement (MOA) must also be approved by wildlife officials in Montana and Idaho.
Finalizing the plan is the last regulatory hurdle before the states can initiate the delisting process. They can then file a petition with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which will have 90 days to consider reviewing the bears’ status, and 12 months from receipt of the petition to decide whether it will recommend that oversight be returned to the states.
Gordon called the approval “a crucial step in Wyoming’s efforts to regain management of grizzly bears,” in a Tuesday statement, adding that it “reaffirms Wyoming’s vow and commitment to long-term grizzly bear conservation and underscores the fact that wildlife management is best placed in the hands of states, not the federal government.”
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Since grizzly bears were listed as endangered in 1975, they have been briefly delisted and entrusted to state agencies twice, in 2007 and 2017. A U.S. district judge in Montana reversed the 2017 rule and reinstated grizzlies’ Endangered Species Act protections, citing concerns about the agencies’ existing plan. The relisting was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2020.
“The purpose of this MOA is to define the process by which the states will coordinate management and allocation of discretionary mortality for grizzly bears in the (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem),” Rick King, wildlife division chief for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, told commissioners.
The updated agreement sets the grizzly population goal at about 932 bears. To maintain that minimum, agencies must account for both discretionary mortality, like euthanasia and hunting, and non-discretionary mortality, such as drowning and vehicle collisions.
If grizzlies are delisted under the terms of the agreement, state wildlife managers would have authority over discretionary mortality after factoring in non-discretionary mortality. The agreement makes it clear that the states intend to allow hunting of bears above that population limit.
According to King, the states made two major changes to the existing plan to address judges’ concerns about population estimates and the bears’ genetic health.
“It’s been updated to reflect the most current population estimates and the commitment of Wyoming and our neighbor states to manage for a population that ensures all recovery criteria continue to be met for this fully recovered population,” he said.
The new memorandum agrees to recalibrate population targets when officials change how those populations are estimated, a major point of contention during the previous delisting attempt. That approach has changed since the last memorandum of understanding was signed in 2016, and the total population target has been adjusted accordingly, from about 700 in 2016 to about 1,000 today.
And, because the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies are isolated from other populations, and wouldn’t grow large enough under the states’ plan to reach them, the agreement now commits to bringing genetically diverse bears into the management area.
Game and Fish believes the revisions will be enough to satisfy the Fish and Wildlife Service and federal courts. But not everyone agrees it’s sufficient.
“The methods contained in the States’ MOA are so egregiously flawed as to call into question the competence and motives of the wildlife managers who concocted them,” grizzly biologist David Mattson wrote in a blog post published before the plan was approved.
Among other worries, Mattson highlighted the agencies’ intention to allow the discretionary killing of males at twice the rate of females — a strategy he sees as unsustainable. Meanwhile, he argued, the current, female-focused means of estimating population wouldn’t adequately account for the disproportionate loss of male grizzlies, eventually causing those estimates to become inflated.
If the memorandum of agreement is implemented, Mattson expects to see male grizzly populations plummet outside national parks, but decline only slightly inside parks. Because male grizzlies in the parks will die at a relatively low rate, he predicts that the mortality rate for bears living beyond park boundaries will be much higher than the overarching 15–22% mortality rate outlined in the agreement.
“The subpopulation in Parks will be a reproductive engine … subsidizing otherwise unsustainable killing in the State-administered subpopulation,” Mattson wrote. “And the brunt of this will be borne by male grizzly bears.”