Grizzly bear delisting rule announcement brings positive reactions from southwest Wyo residentsWritten by Joy Ufford
By all accounts, the grizzly bear delisting rule announced last week for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is the welcome result of years of collaboration and millions of dollars.
It also marks a change in how ranchers, recreationists and officials connected to Sublette County – from the Upper Green River Basin (UGRB) to the south end of the Wind River Range – can continue to reduce conflicts and learn to live with the grizzly.
Many in the western half of Wyoming are well aware that the GYE grizzly population, protected under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Endangered Species Act, has spread out from its initial core in Yellowstone east to Park County and south to Teton and Sublette counties.
The grizzly trekked up the Gros Ventre River and funneled through the top the Upper Green River and now works its way down along the Wind River Range.
Many believe this grizzly bear population is well recovered. The protected grizzly’s recovery has continued under the state’s watchful eye.
“Wyoming Game and Fish (WGFD) has continued to be the leader in management of grizzly bears for the last 30 years in consultation with the FWS,” said WGFD spokesman Renny McKay. “The people of Wyoming have already invested $40 million in this over these 30 years.”
WGFD monitors GYE grizzlies and consults with FWS about which to remove or relocate. It also compensates ranchers for confirmed livestock losses, mainly cattle and sheep on forest allotments.
People in the UGRB the Wind River Range have paid for recovery in other ways, he added, with lost income, increased danger and added requirements.
“These people are committed to find a way to live with grizzly bears,” McKay said. “It’s changed the way they recreate, live and earn their livings in Sublette County – this delisting is a testament to that commitment.”
WGFD’s Pinedale Region’s Fiscal Year 2013 damage reports shows it second only to the Cody Region with 20 claims and $130,591 in compensation to producers. Last year WGFD captured and moved or killed 45 grizzlies, mainly in the UGRB.
Pinedale cattle rancher and House Rep. Albert Sommers and his fellow UGRB grazing partners are permitted on the Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) where sheep and cattle are heavily preyed upon.
Last year, grizzlies killed 80 of their cattle and ranchers came up short 290 calves.
“I’m pleased we’re going down that path,” he said as a legislator and rancher. “It’s long overdue.”
Their UGRB permits allow 7,000 animal units, although fewer are run. Sommers is less concerned about losing BTNF permits than “us being able to withstand” such depredation.
“Ultimately, we don’t raise beef to feed bears,” he said dryly.
UGRB sheep and cattle permittees still experiment on ways to reduce conflicts, he added.
“We changed some pasture rotations last year. That seemed to help,” Sommers said. “This year, we’re looking at cattle movement changes to see if it helps. We’re examining a larger suite of tools to see if any of them fit.”
Permittees operate under the UGRB grazing environmental impact statement (EIS), which is due to be released soon, Pinedale District Ranger Rob Hoelscher said recently, and it doesn’t address delisted grizzlies.
“The grizzly bear is still ‘listed’ until a delisting decision is made. Therefore, we would not anticipate making a decision on UGRB that would conflict with the current FWS biological opinion,” Hoelscher said in a later interview.
After they are “officially” delisted, BTNF won’t need to consult with FWS on potential impacts such as grazing, he said.
As grizzlies move south, the BTNF’s expanded food-storage temporary rule just turned permanent – which applies to everyone now beyond Boulder Creek, he added.
As a Boulder rancher and Sublette County Commissioner, Joel Bousman, with BTNF grazing permits at Silver Creek against the south Wind River Range, agreed the delisting announcement is welcome.
“The grizzly population is well beyond the original numbers determined to provide for population sustainability,” he said. “With a return to state management, the livestock industry will be in a better position to survive economically. As always, the closer management decisions are to the state and local level, the better the decisions.”
As a rancher, Bousman feels the effects of grizzlies moving well south of the UGRB.
“We do not have a loss count as our allotment is almost all in wilderness and is so rugged geographically that we hardly ever see the kills until it is too late to verify the cause,” Bousman said. “The times we had FWS confirm, so many predators predated on the kill that they couldn't tell who was first.”
He added, “We are just starting to get female grizzlies denning on the south end of the Winds and so far no kills verified there.”
The BTNF did not write a “just in case” paragraph for delisted grizzlies in its forthcoming UGRB grazing EIS, according to Hoelscher.
However, delisted grizzlies “automatically become a U.S. Forest Service ‘sensitive species’ and several of the existing protections would remain in place to keep it from being relisted, such as food storage requirements, carcass disposal, etc.,” he said.
“If and when the final FWS decision is made to delist, it is not known what that will entail,” Bousman said. “There will likely be monitoring requirements and protection measures left in place to aid in the continued viability of the (GYE) species.”
BTNF’s “management tools also serve as public safety aids,” he said.
“So, when a final decision is made, U.S. Forest Service will need to assess the changed circumstances and evaluate all of our decisions based on what those circumstances are before we change anything,” Bousman commented.