MINNEAPOLIS — Recently, Montana decided not to hold a grizzly bear hunt this fall, though it could have — maybe.
It’s the “maybe” part that complicates the issue, and draws parallels between Montana’s dilemma vis-a-vis grizzly bears, and Minnesota’s seemingly never-ending wolf management impasse.
The comparison isn’t exact. Minnesota wolves can reproduce quickly, and even if a pack were run out of a 40-square-mile area of northern Minnesota (a typical pack range), that region wouldn’t be devoid of wild canines for long.
Grizzly bears, by contrast, are much slower to reproduce, thus their population is more vulnerable. Which is why these apex predators in 1975 were protected by the Endangered Species Act, after their Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population had fallen to only about 150.
Last year, when grizzlies in that region were removed from federal protection and their management was returned to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, their population was believed to hover around 700, with some biologists estimating it as high as 1,000.
After delisting, a 19-member committee made up of wildlife biologists, managers and other representatives from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, as well as federal and tribal officials, was formed to oversee Yellowstone-area grizzlies.
The group is led by Frank van Manen, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist who has chaired the federal government’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team since 2012.
Charged with sustaining the Yellowstone grizzly population at about 674 animals, the coordinating committee can set limits on the number of bears in the region that can be killed by hunters or wildlife managers.
Grizzlies taken by hunting also can be restricted by a bear’s sex. And cubs are protected.
Overarching these considerations are some of the same issues that have affected the administration of Minnesota wolves.
Lawsuits, for instance.
As soon as grizzlies were removed from endangered species protection, a lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the National Parks Conservation Association.
“The Yellowstone region’s grizzlies deserve better than to be subjected to trophy hunting based on a half-baked government decision,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso
Sound familiar? It should.
The same group called legislation introduced in January in the U.S. Senate that would return Minnesota wolf management to the state a “War on Wolves Act” that would “strip federal protection from wolves and allow trophy hunting.”
Recall that in Minnesota, wolves were subject to a bounty until 1965, after which an open season continued until 1974, during which about 250 animals were killed annually.
In 1974, when Minnesota’s wolves were estimated to number between 350 and 700 animals, they were protected under the Endangered Species Act, with a goal of achieving a “recovered” population of between 1,250 and 1,400 Minnesota wolves.
Lo these many years later, Minnesota is home to about 2,856 wolves in about 500 packs. Yet the state still doesn’t have control of the animals, in large part because lawsuits that intend to keep that management transition from ever occurring are filed to all appearances continuously.
Litigation possibilities and associated costs are among reasons why Montana declined to pursue a grizzly hunt this fall, said Dan Vermillion, chairman of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The five-citizen commission sets Montana fish and wildlife regulations, and approves property acquisitions and certain rules and activities of the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
“We knew if we moved forward with a hunt, litigation would probably interrupt that hunt from actually happening,” Vermillion said. “Hunters’ expectations would grow, then there would likely be an injunction. Given that the hunting opportunity that we could have offered was small anyway, we decided to wait.”
Under an agreement that Montana, Wyoming and Idaho reached as part of the delisting process, Montana’s grizzly quota this fall would have been only .9 females and 5.8 males.
Moreover, if a female bear were killed, whether first or last among the approximately seven animals, the hunt would have ended immediately.
Wyoming, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with a grizzly hunt. That state’s Game and Fish Department received permission in January to draft hunting regulations that set the price of resident grizzly hunting licenses drawn by lottery this fall at $600, with nonresidents paying $6,000. Sow bears and sows with cubs would be protected, with a possible harvest quota of about 10 animals.
Van Manen, the federal grizzly biologist, has said the Greater Yellowstone region, comprising some 25,000 square miles, is supporting as many grizzlies as it can. Which explains why boar grizzlies, or males, increasingly are expanding their range and coming into conflict with livestock producers, homeowners, and elk, deer and even pheasant hunters.
“In Montana, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and subsequently were removed from the Endangered Species List and returned to state management, we knew the only way wolves would survive on the landscape over the long term was to find a balance between the interests of wolf advocates, landowners and hunters,” Vermillion said. “Getting everyone involved in wolf management was an important part of finding that balance.
“It’s the same with grizzlies. Everyone has the common goal of sustaining their population. But it can come with a cost to landowners and livestock producers.”
Vermillion emphasized that hunters also will play a role in the Montana grizzly management.
“So, we have to find a balance that can be a moving target over time,” Vermillion said. “Someday we may have a grizzly season. We just didn’t think this year was the time to do it.”