Removing federal protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would all but guarantee the trophy hunting of this iconic species in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Photo by John E. Swallow
Removing federal protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would all but guarantee the trophy hunting of this iconic species in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Photo by John E. Swallow

Oct. 5, 2016 – With the largest populations for these species in all of Europe, Romania has shocked (in the very best of ways) the animal welfare and conservation communities by outlawing all trophy hunting of brown bears, wolves, and other carnivores. It’s especially remarkable given the stories of former Romanian communist president Nicolae Ceaușescu treating the country as a sort of royal hunting ground and slaughtering perhaps 400 bears during his 25-year reign.

In the United States, in contrast, our governments – federal and state – are, unfortunately, pushing in the opposite direction, seeking to liberalize hunting of grizzly bears and wolves at a time when we recognize that they have far greater economic and ecological value alive than dead.

Through our litigation and public policy strategy, we’ve forestalled the federal government’s delisting plans for wolves in four of six states (Wyoming, and also Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), preventing the slaughter of more than 1,000 wolves in the last two years. Later this month, HSUS attorneys will argue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to defend this animal protection victory. Now we’re asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) not to delist grizzly bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and not to turn management of the animals over to the three states.

The grizzly bear is a charismatic keystone predator who is just beginning to recover after being nearly wiped out in the lower 48 states over the last century. A loss of federal protections would all but guarantee the trophy hunting of this iconic species in the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

The HSUS, Native American Tribal groups, environmental organizations, and scientists have been analyzing the post-delisting grizzly bear management frameworks proposed by the states, and have submitted detailed comments, research, and testimony to federal and state agencies on the inadequacy of those regulatory mechanisms. The HSUS has also filed two lawsuits in state court challenging decisions by Wyoming and Montana to open a grizzly trophy hunting season after federal protections are removed. The bear population at issue has faced unusual levels of human-caused mortality (mistaken identity kills, damage control killing, poaching, etc.), and they also face key threats to their food sources, including cutthroat trout and white bark pine cones.

On Sunday, more than 50 Tribal Nations in both the United States and Canada—for whom the Great Bear is sacred—signed a historic treaty opposing the delisting. In a statement on the treaty, Chief Stanley Grier of the Piikani Nation said, “Since time immemorial, the grizzly has been our ancestor, our relative. The grizzly is part of us and we are part of the grizzly culturally, spiritually and ceremonially. The purpose of this treaty is to honor, recognize, and reinvigorate the ancient relationship we have with the grizzly, and to restore the balance where we are the stewards and [the] grizzly is the guardian of our lands.”

The Administration has touted the “success” of grizzly bear recovery, but it’s more hype than hard fact. Grizzly bears once ranged from northern Mexico to Alaska—there were perhaps as many as 50,000 bears in the lower 48 in the early 1800s—before white settlers largely killed them off. Today, wild grizzly bears number, at best, between 1,400 and 1,700 bears in the lower 48 states, of which only 674 to 839 are believed to be in the area now proposed to be delisted—and even that small number may be an over-count, according to some biologists.

There is no question that delisting grizzly bears in the GYE will place them in peril. Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming wildlife managers have poorly managed wolves in the eyes of multiple federal judges who have examined prior management schemes. It is these wildlife managers who will call the shots for grizzly bears, and will decide the numbers that can be killed annually, the hunting seasons, and types of allowable hunting or trapping methods. Those could include such cruel and unsporting methods as hunting or trapping over bait, chasing bears with packs of GPS-collared hounds, or even allowing spring hunts that could orphan cubs, leaving them to die from starvation or predation. The agencies in these states – dutifully obedient to the outfitters and guides, trophy hunters, and gun clubs – cannot be trusted to make the best, science-based decisions – or the humane ones.

There is no question that Americans value grizzly bears far more alive than dead (and, as a recent study revealed, they have increasingly favorable views of our nation’s large carnivores in general). In 2015, over four million people visited Yellowstone National Park and nearly five million visited Grand Teton National Park. Our National Parks brought $478 million in revenue to Montana alone in the last fiscal year. Millions of those tourists come to that area to see wild grizzly bears.

U.S. and Canadian Tribal Nations, scientists, environmental and humane advocates, and millions of visitors to our treasured National Parks do not want to see this magnificent but still-fragile species put under the gun, simply to appease a few trophy hunters. Doing so will rob the park of grizzly bears and drive down viewership of these animals. Ultimately, that will cut into attendance and put a damper on economic activity in northwest Wyoming. In a terrible way, too, the delisting will effectively turn Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks into game farms to supply trophy bears for outfitters and rich clients to ambush when the animals leave the park’s protective boundaries. That same thing has happened with wolves in and around Denali National Park in Alaska, and we cannot and we should not let that happen in the Yellowstone area.

Let’s not fall behind Romania on animal protection. You, too, can make your opinion known about the hazards faced by grizzly bears if delisted; send in your comments on the FWS proposal before 9 a.m, Oct. 7.

As President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, few are in a position to speak for the animals like Wayne Pacelle.