A bill currently being considered by the Wyoming Legislature would, in theory, allow the state to thumb its nose at a federal judge and begin hunting grizzly bears.
Senate File 93 would give the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission permission to hold a hunt for grizzly bears — despite federal protections the species currently enjoys. Lawmakers acknowledged it was unlikely the commission would move forward with a hunt and run afoul of the federal government, indicating the bill was more of a symbolic gesture.
“This sends a very clear signal to the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and any judge that we’re serious about wanting to manage our game populations and doing them in a responsible way,” Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower said on the Senate floor Wednesday, adding, “The problem is going to get nothing but worse until we get after it.”
The bill passed its first reading in the Senate on a split voice vote Wednesday morning. Some senators jokingly growled like bears — “Grrrr!” — to signal their opposition; laughter followed.
Wildlife managers estimate there are at least 720 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — up from about 150 individuals in 1975. State officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have declared the population to be recovered, resulting in the delisting of grizzlies last year. The state of Wyoming and Idaho planned to hold their first grizzly hunts in decades last fall. However, the delisting was challenged and, last September, a U.S. District Court judge in Montana overturned the delisting and gave grizzlies federal protections once again.
SF 93 denounces that ruling.
“The district court’s order impedes the state of Wyoming’s ability to protect the safety of its citizens, particularly in light of grizzly bear attacks on workers and other citizens and tourists of the state,” says a portion of the bill text.
It goes on to authorize the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to conduct a grizzly bear hunt if the panel determines it “would be beneficial for managing Wyoming’s wildlife and for protecting Wyoming workers and other citizens and tourists of the state.”
“We had a sow and two cubs south of Byron. We have some management issues,” said David Rael, Wyoming Game and Fish commissioner from Cowley. “We’re at the mercy of the court. I’m very interested to see how these bills will proceed. Hunting may not be the answer [to managing the species], but it’s a good tool to have.”
Beyond sending a message, giving the Game and Fish permission to hold a hunt now will save legislative time when appeals are resolved or a new rule delisting the species has been made, said Sen. Wyatt Agar, R-Thermopolis, who’s sponsoring SF 93.
The bill uses “permissive language,” Agar said, giving the agency all available options.
“It allows the agency to hold a hunt, but doesn’t require them to,” he said.
Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, voted in favor of the bill even though he doubts the Game and Fish would take advantage of a law overriding the ESA.
“This Senate File only gives the Game and Fish the option that they could have a hunt. But this is very unlikely as the federal fines under the Endangered Species Act would be harsh and extreme,” Kost said.
He added that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is “very capable of managing our wildlife and for someone from another state or even organization to be making a decision which only impacts our state bothers me.”
“I believe in local control in our state so it only makes sense … we should have the final say when a decision impacts our state,” Kost said.
SF 93 must pass two more readings before it would then be sent to the House.
If the bill crosses over to the other chamber, it may be met with some skepticism from a couple local representatives.
Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, said he might be tempted to support the bill, but is concerned about the possible interruption of federal dollars or resulting fines.
“I’d be worried about losing funds, but I’m all for pushing the federal government on this issue,” Laursen said. “What concerns a lot of people is how Colorado can sell marijuana despite a federal law against it, but we have to follow federal laws with grizzlies.”
Greater Yellowstone Coalition Wildlife Coordinator Chris Colligan said that, if Wyoming went forward with a hunt, the state may become ineligible for federal funds that support the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Currently, the department receives over $19 million in federal fund match dollars from taxes on hunting and fishing equipment purchases. Total revenue from the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson acts represent about 20 percent of the Game and Fish’s annual budget. The funds are distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the same agency responsible for ESA and other federal grant dollars, Colligan said.
“This bill [SF 93] will only promulgate further lawsuits and delay Wyoming grizzly bears being delisted if the state were to proceed with a hunt in spite of Endangered Species Act protections,” said Colligan.
In a quick response to the bill, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition issued a statement calling it “clearly illegal,” predicting it would result in “a public relations black eye for the state of Wyoming.”
Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, said she similarly thinks SF 93 is illegal and won’t support it. However, she voted for a joint resolution that calls on Congress to override the judge’s decision and delist the region’s grizzlies — and to fully fund bear management until that time.
Newsome says she deals with bears year-round on her ranch on the South Fork.
“Our cows are being traumatized by bears,” she said. “What do we have to do? We’ve been through this over and over and over again.”
Agar is also hopeful that House Joint Resolution 1 — which passed the House on a 53-7 vote and now awaits action in the Senate — will speed state management along. It specifically asks Congress to act “swiftly” in returning grizzlies’ management to the state.
According to language in the resolution, the state pays for 95 percent of grizzly management expenses — more than $45 million since 1990. Since 2009, the state has spent $19.6 million on management and the federal government has only chipped in $1 million. Wyoming also pays damages to ranchers and property owners — more than $1.1 million in the past three years.
“Folks here have bent over backwards for grizzlies,” said Brian DeBolt, large carnivore conflict coordinator for Game and Fish. “And the same folks have been paying for the management.”
Continued court delays on delisting the area’s grizzlies creates animosity with the public, he said.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen’s decision restoring Endangered Species Act protections for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears was met with anger from local leaders, including Park County commissioners. Some of that frustration was fueled by a series of high-profile grizzly-human conflicts — including a Jackson area guide, Mark Uptain, who was fatally attacked by a bear.
Rep. Newsome doesn’t think a hunting season would do much to stop grizzlies moving deeper into conflict areas, but Sen. Agar is hopeful a hunt will help slow conflicts.
“The problem bears are the logical ones to take,” Agar said.
Large carnivore officials for the Game and Fish have said a direct correlation can’t be made between hunting and decreased conflicts.
“Data on how hunting impacts conflicts is not that abundant,” said DeBolt.
Hunting regulations for the ill-fated 2018 hunt were structured with higher quotas in conflict areas, he said, but the bears that would have been removed were unlikely to be statistically significant in reducing conflicts. But DeBolt said reducing conflicts isn’t the only benefit of state management and hunting seasons.
“You have to look at the big picture: State management increases public tolerance of bears on the landscape,” he said. “It gives stakeholders a sense of ownership.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have all appealed Judge Christensen’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, though that could take two years to settle. Hilary Cooley, Fish and Wildlife’s grizzly recovery coordinator, said in late November the agency might try to propose a new rule delisting the species, but that, too, would take about two years to complete.
Christensen’s ruling helped buoy previous calls for changes to the Endangered Species Act itself.
All three members of Wyoming’s Congressional delegation favor amendments to the act and Wyoming’s newly elected governor, Mark Gordon, called for modernizing the act on Friday.
A bill that would have enabled hunters and anglers to donate to victims of grizzly bear attacks when buying fishing and hunting licenses was killed by a legislative committee on Wednesday.
House Bill 135 proposed that people injured by grizzly bears — and relatives of those killed — could request compensation from the donated funds. Victims would have had 90 days to file a claim with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The department then would have been tasked with determining disbursements based on the extent of the injury, the circumstances of the attack, the need for financial aid and other factors. People injured by other large carnivores would not be eligible.
Getting the fund up and running would cost appropriately $19,000, according to a fiscal note appended to the bill.
The House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee nixed HB 135 on a 2-6 vote Wednesday, with local Rep. Jamie Flinter, R-Greybull, voting in favor and Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, among the six opposed. Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, had cosponsored the bill.