(Courthouse News) This fall, Wyoming will allow a trophy hunt of grizzly bears, its first in 44 years.

On Wednesday, the commission overseeing the Wyoming Game and Fish Department voted 7-0 to approve a hunt of up to 22 grizzly bears outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, in spite of receiving more than 185,000 public comments opposing the hunt after it was proposed in March.

The commissioners said they shaped the plan around public input and are taking a “conservative” approach to regulating the new hunting season. The decision was cheered by trophy hunters and ranchers, especially sheep ranchers who have suffered livestock losses as bears have wandered into other parts of Wyoming.

Derek Goldman of the Endangered Species Coalition said the proposal is anything but conservative, especially compared to Idaho’s plan to limit its hunt to one bear and Montana’s decision to have no hunt.

“It’s pretty disappointing that right out of the gate that Wyoming would put forth such a high level of mortality. We were hoping that Wyoming would be a lot more level-headed and conservative,” Goldman said.

Two years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to delist the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the Endangered Species Act. Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have since developed a cooperative agreement for managing the grizzly bear population so it wouldn’t drop below a level where it could again be listed.

But Wyoming is taking its big share of the hunting, allowing 11 bears – but only one female – to be killed within the demographic monitoring area around Yellowstone National Park, the area where grizzlies were specifically protected and surveyed until the bear was delisted in June 2017. Hunters can shoot another 11 grizzly bears outside of the monitoring area.

Biologists estimate that more than 700 grizzly bears roam the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. However, they are slow to reproduce so the population could drop rapidly if all three states set similar hunt quotas, Goldman said.

Grizzly bears die from a number of human-caused factors including car collisions and being mistaken as a black bear. To deal with the latter problem, the commission ordered that all hunters with grizzly bear permits attend a special course to improve their ability to identify both species and sex.

“Many, many people have been part of this process since last fall in helping to set a direction for all grizzly bear management, from education and conflict reduction to hunting. Wyoming is committed to ensuring a recovered population to provide opportunity for anyone who is interested in grizzly bears,” said Scott Talbott, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Bart Melton, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, disagreed with Talbott, saying the commission ignored concerns raised by Wyoming residents and national park supporters across the country “by approving its destructive grizzly hunting plan.”

Wildlife agencies in all three states have repeatedly pointed to their wolf hunts as evidence that they can successfully manage a grizzly bear hunt.

But states like Montana are taking a more cautious approach, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams.
“Holding off on hunting for now, I believe, will help demonstrate our commitment to long term recovery and at the same time allow us the science-based management flexibility we need,” Williams said in a February statement.

Native American tribes strongly opposed Wednesday’s vote, arguing that the grizzly bear is sacred to their people and that the federal government didn’t confer with tribes on its decision.

The federal government recognizes 26 nations as Associated Tribes of Yellowstone, a list that includes the Oglala Lakota and tribes as far away as Oklahoma.

In a press conference call Wednesday, Tom Rodgers, a lobbyist and member of Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe called on Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester to do “the right thing” and stop the hunt.

“Today we’re calling upon you, our elected representatives, to demonstrate the moral courage and set aside the ego of people who would seek to hunt and kill these sacred beings. Because that’s what it is. There is no glory and honor, no glory and honor, in killing a grizzly,” Rodgers said.

In August, some of those tribes joined with conservation groups to sue the Department of the Interior over the grizzly bear delisting. The lawsuit argues that hunting could easily push the Yellowstone population below a critical level if the species faces other challenges such as loss of food sources due to climate change.

While the lawsuit inches forward – a decision is expected in the fall – a related injunction could still stop Wyoming’s hunt. Otherwise, up to 22 Wyoming bears may not live to hibernate in their dens this winter.

“Grizzly bears will be killed through trophy hunts on the doorstep of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks instead of inspiring millions who come to the region just for a chance to see a live grizzly bear in the wild,” said Bonnie Rice, Greater Yellowstone senior representative with Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.