After 30 years of protected status, grizzly bears are about to come of the threatened species list.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Grizzlies have stolen calves and cows from Wyoming rancher Shirley Bales, and eaten some lambs that were her granddaughter's 4H project.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Vickie Finley, who lives outside Cody, Wyo., thinks grizzlies still should continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Anne Hawke, NPR
Hunting guide Joe Tilden thinks it time to allow a hunting season for grizzlies.
Today, the federal government is announcing that the grizzly bear has recovered in and around Yellowstone National Park. In the 30 years since it was put on the threatened species list, the grizzly has tripled in numbers. The bears have spread out of the park and into ranchlands and communities in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and they're not always welcomed.
Shirley Bales says she never saw any sign of a grizzly in a lifetime of ranching near Cody in northwestern Wyoming; that is, until a few years ago. Then a grizzly killed three cows and seven calves in one season. And that wasn't the worst of it.
"Our granddaughter lost four lambs, her 4-H project," says Bales. "I went out to feed the lambs and here they are dead. She could have met the bear. I do not think they should be in places where people and children live."
Local hunters also have complaints. Hunting guide Joe Tilden says when grizzlies hear the crack of a rifle, they think they've heard a dinner bell and they come running. Hunters end up having to fight grizzlies for the feast.
"An outfitter friend of mine, he was packing an elk on a packhorse," Tilden recalls, "and there he was and another guide and two hunters, four of them with eight horses in the middle of a meadow, and a bear came in from behind them where they couldn't see it and actually jumped on top of the packhorse. The grizzlies have absolutely no fear of human beings, none at all."
Until now, the government has been protecting grizzlies as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Ranchers and hunters weren't allowed to kill them, trap them or injure them except to save a human life. The federal government is now proposing to drop that protection. Control over the grizzlies would pass from federal officials charged with increasing their numbers to state officials who enforce hunting regulations. The states would let ranchers kill and trap grizzlies that prey on livestock, and for the first time in three decades, they would establish rules for hunting the great bears. That delights Tim French, the chairman of the Board of Commissioners for Park County. He says he wants the state to use its new power to keep grizzlies out of his county.
"We don't need big old grizzly bears roaming around the farmland," he says. "We don't have to have them where we're trying to live. Why don't the other states volunteer to take some of them? No, they don't want to do that. They want to criticize us for even thinking about shooting them."
But some locals love the bears. Vickie Finley has long graying braids and lives in what she calls a passive solar house, 20 miles south of Cody, Wyo. She can see for miles from her second-story deck. She likes to scan the pastures and foothills for grizzlies.
"We're all part of the same ecosystem, and we have to cooperate to be able to make it all work and to still have the grizzly bear because it's the wildness of America. That's what it represents," Finley says.
Finley doesn't like the idea of the Yellowstone grizzly as a trophy animal for legal hunting, and she fears that many more bears will die illegally.
"There's always been that percentage that will do the, you know, shoot, shut up and shovel, you know, kill them in the back country, bury them and then just never talk about it because, of course, it's against the law," she says. "The fewer regulations there are, the more people are going to take the law into their own hands. And a lot of people around here have guns."
The hunting guide, Joe Tilden, is one of those people with guns. He also loves having the powerful predator around.
"The wilderness of Wyoming would be a terrible, terrible place without the grizzly and I truly believe that," says Tilden. "I mean, they're the epitome of what's wild and free in this country, but they just need to be managed."
And by managed, Tilden means hunted.
"I would love to hunt a grizzly," he says. "Yeah, I really would. It's fun. And that's all I can say. It is fun. You're hunting a large carnivore. You're hunting an animal that can fight back."
State officials say hunting could actually help preserve the grizzlies. Mark Bruscino heads the grizzly recovery program for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He says allowing legal hunting would give hunters a stake in the grizzlies continued recovery because the more grizzlies there are, the more hunting the state will allow.
"That's going to build a sense of ownership within those people," says Bruscino. He's seen it happen with other animals. The hunting community pitches in with conservation efforts and it cracks down on poachers because poaching takes away legal hunting opportunities for rare animals like bighorn sheep.
"We had a guy kill two sheep on Christmas Eve day illegally a few years ago and just chop the heads off. And during his arraignment, it was standing room only in the courtroom because people were very upset."
Bruscino says hunters will start defending grizzlies, too. Many environmentalists worry that there will be so much hunting it will threaten the grizzlies' survival. Bruscino says the state will strictly limit hunting. It hasn't decided what the rules will be. It might hold a lottery or set a short hunting season that will close when a specific number of bears has been shot.
"The Wyoming Game and Fish Department spent millions of dollars over the last 30 years recovering the grizzly bear and we are absolutely positively committed to maintaining health grizzly bear numbers throughout all suitable habitat in northwest Wyoming," says Bruscino.
All the more so because if Wyoming let the numbers decline too much, the grizzlies might go back on the threatened species list. Then the federal government would step in and Wyoming has no interest in letting federal officials call the shots again.