WGFD: At least 1,000 grizzlies exist in the region
Pinedale – Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Deputy Director John Emmerich told the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee in their late-May meeting that, although the official population estimate for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region is 600, he’d venture to guess there are “at least 1,000 bears in the population.”
Emmerich explained to the committee that when plans and goals for grizzly bear recovery were written, the models and calculations utilized were very conservative – to err on the side of the bear. But he said grizzly bears are now recovered, and it’s time for a re-evaluation of the methodology of calculating the population to get a more accurate count, he said.
“To get a fairly tight population estimate would cost about $12.9 million,” Emmerich said.
That amount would pay for an intensive survey effort involving the collection of grizzly bear hair at corral traps or rubbing trees throughout the tri-state Yellowstone ecosystem. The hair samples would be subject to DNA analysis, which allows for identification of individual bears. Undertaking such a program would involve many agencies and would be both labor intensive and expensive, Emmerich said.
However, even having such research in hand would not increase the probability that grizzly bears would be removed from the list of species protected pursuant to the federal Endangered Species Act, Emmerich said, because the 2009 court ruling that bears must remain protected “had nothing to do with the biology of the bear.”
Emmerich said the Montana federal judge’s decision that bears cannot be removed from federal protection hinged on his view that there were inadequate regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure the continued survival of the grizzly bear, and the court’s concern over declining whitebark pine, a food source for bears.
In describing the decision, issued by Montana federal judge Donald Molloy, Emmerich told the committee, “He has set the bar so high, he has made it almost impossible to recover anything, in my personal opinion.”
Another action that is also taking place currently is the re-evaluation of the criteria that are used in population modeling. This “rule set” is being examined by a study team, Emmerich said. While the outcome won’t be known until this fall, Emmerich said he expects that in the end, the population estimate will be 40 to 60 percent higher than the current minimum estimate, which uses the conservative criteria.
The importance of having a better population estimate isn’t for delisting, Emmerich said, “but it will give us a better idea of how many bears can be removed from the population.”
Since lethal “take” thresholds are based on the percentage of bears in the population, a 10 percent threshold for removal of problem bears equates to 60 bears (for a population of 600). To put that into perspective, the WGFD trapped and either killed or relocated 65 bears last year – more than 10 percent of the current population estimate.
Kim Floyd, executive secretary of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, spoke with the commission in support of the nearly $13 million research proposal, and indicated he’s personally willing to work to help bring additional funding to the table by approaching interested non-profit groups.
Floyd said he has “watched this explosion of grizzly bears,” and knows that some hunters and recreationalists are turning away from the region because of the thriving grizzly population.
“I wonder how much more the state is going to lose because of this situation,” Floyd said, suggesting the money on the research project would be a good investment for the future of bear management.
Committee co-chairman Senator Bruce Burns of Sheridan said he was “dubious” as to the value of study in terms of getting grizzly bears delisted, noting it would also be a hard sale of the floor of the legislature. Burns did pledge to keep an open mind about the issue, noting he would like to hear funding commitments from public agencies and private organizations.
Representative Allen Jaggi of Lyman said, in his view, “there are too many grizzlies” and the bears are not showing any fear of man, instead approaching too closely.
“More people will have more conflicts, and probably more people will get killed,” Jaggi said, adding he fears continued litigation from groups whose goal is to prevent any hunting of grizzlies.
WGFD Director Scott Talbott told the committee: “We continue to document bears from the southern portion of the Wyoming Range, and the southern portion of the Wind River Range, and, as of this week, we have a grizzly bear on Gooseberry Creek between the Meeteetse rest area and the town of Worland.”
Talbott said the grizzly bear population continues to increase between four and seven percent each year.
“We are committed to the conservation of this species,” Talbott said, noting that the state wildlife agency invested nearly $2 million last year in grizzly bear management.
“We feel very, very strongly that grizzly bears should be delisted,” Talbott said.
Representative Kathy Davison of Kemmerer said she felt the committee would spend $20 million if it felt it would result in grizzly bear delisting. But, since that’s not the case, Davison said, “I don’t think it’s a good investment right now.”
State officials have appealed the federal court decision that reinstituted protections for grizzly bears to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Talbott reported, and a decision on the appeal is expected this fall.