Is the proposal to hunt Yellowstone grizzlies based on sound science and public support?
Posted January 9, 2013 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons: photograher Bruce McKay, Yellow Snow Photography
The Dec. 29 opinion piece in the Billings Gazette by Scott Talbott of Wyoming Game and Fish and Harv Forsgren of the US Forest Service claimed that sport hunting would help grizzly bear recovery by reducing human-bear conflicts. They also claimed that their conclusions were based on the best available science and on public opinion. Yet evidence from the past decades of grizzly bear research and management calls into question the defensibility of their claims.
As George Wuerthner amply articulated in his Jan 2 response, the claim that sport hunting will reduce conflicts is not substantiated. Sport hunting of bears is an indiscriminate activity, so it would not target animals involved in conflicts. Also, hunted bears cannot learn to be wary of people or avoid attractants because they are dead: by definition, dead bears can’t learn. And, it should be self evident that in order for hunting to reduce conflicts effectively, it would have to be so heavy handed as to significantly reduce bear numbers – hardly a conservative approach to bear management.
The authors also claim that sport hunting of bears will promote coexistence by increasing public acceptance of bears. They provide no evidence to support this claim, but instead surprisingly ignore the enormous body of work – much of it done by the agencies they work for – that promote coexistence through reducing the availability of garbage and other attractants. This work dramatically reduced conflicts and subsequent bear mortalities and measurably increased public understanding and acceptance of bears. It has been vital to reversing the population decline that was occurring in 1975 when Yellowstone grizzly bears were finally afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act. Yellowstone National Park is a noteworthy success story: when the population was listed, Yellowstone Park was the scene of a blood bath for bears, with many garbage-habituated bears routinely shot because they became a public safety hazard. That is not the case now. Today, most grizzly bears are killed outside the park in areas where similar garbage regulations do not exist, and communities lack needed funds to institute effective bear proofing systems.
If the authors were committed to using the best available scientific and other information, they would not have ignored the history about the practice of coexistence that their own agencies were instrumental in writing.
The authors also state: “As recovery efforts continue to succeed, bears will move into areas occupied by people and conflicts will increase”. Again, they distort the science by failing to admit that it is unclear as to what is driving the pattern of increasing numbers of bears in the ecosystem’s periphery. Alternative hypotheses have been suggested by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), which conducts research on Yellowstone grizzly bears. One relates to population size: if the population is growing, and carrying capacity in the core is reached, you can expect bears, especially dispersing subadults, to move out from the parks and wilderness areas and bump into people at higher rates. The other hypothesis relates to the loss of whitebark pine, formerly one of the top four foods for the Greater Yellowstone population. If the productivity of habitat in the heart of the ecosystem drops significantly, you would expect to see more bears relocating to the periphery in order to get enough calories to successfully reproduce.
The IGBST is now evaluating which of these hypotheses is most defensible in light of existing data. The team’s conclusion should matter to managers: if bears are moving out from the core because of recent habitat changes, but the population has not significantly changed in size, then reducing attractants so that bears can better survive there would be a wiser and more biologically sound strategy than hunting bears.
The authors of the opinion piece also claim that their position on hunting bears is supported by the public. But the most recent record of public opinion that relate to Yellowstone grizzly bear management involves the roughly 210,000 comments that were submitted on the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) 2007 delisting decision. Importantly, 99.9% of the comments submitted to FWS opposed delisting and hunting bears.
So, why did the authors twist the facts to suit their interest in hunting bears? The answer lies in the constituency of state game agencies. They are hunters and fishers, who pay the bills through license fees and therefore have an unfairly loud voice in state wildlife management. So it is easy to understand why the views of hundreds of thousands of members of the public are ignored in favor of a select few. But this is hardly a fair representation of the broader public interest in endangered species.
It is important to remember that Yellowstone would never had been set aside as the nation’s first park if the decision had been up to the locals, who vigorously opposed the designation. One of America’s greatest conservation success stories, the creation of Yellowstone Park, was the direct result of government acting to protect the broader public interest. Yellowstone’s iconic grizzly bears deserve similar treatment.
NRDC is not against a hunt, once the Yellowstone population has achieved biological recovery and regulatory systems are in place to ensure a healthy population in the future. Scientists have long advocated for more bears in suitable habitat in the Greater Yellowstone and for the protection of connected landscapes in the Northern Rockies, which could support over 2000 grizzly bears. Connecting the long-isolated Yellowstone grizzly bear population to other grizzly bear ecosystems is seen by scientists as critical to sustaining genetically healthy bear populations in the long term. Such a vision is achievable, but we are not there yet.
The Yellowstone bear population is now thought to be leveling off or possibly declining in numbers, and thresholds for allowable mortality have been breached in recent years. Given these factors, combined with the incredibly low reproductive rate of grizzly bears and their vulnerability to human-caused mortality, it would be unwise to now add another source of mortality in the form of sport hunting. It is important to remember that excessive killing, including by hunting, was a major reason why grizzly bears were eliminated in 99% of their former range and were subsequently listed under the Endangered Species Act.
A central tenet of the Endangered Species Act is the precautionary principle: it means that we should use caution when making decisions about the future of imperiled species. Climate change is happening. Two of the bears’ key foods, whitebark pine and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, have collapsed. In light of these and other uncertainties, we should not be hasty to institute a hunt that could contribute to reversing recent gains in bear recovery.
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