The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee last week issued a statement supporting the use of regulated hunting as a management tool for recovered and delisted grizzly bear populations. But in spite of widespread media coverage and a subsequent spike in criticism, officials believe the release of an official position is more a blip than a landmark on the roadmap to grizzly recovery.
"We're not making a decision to hunt," says Chris Servheen, an advisor to the IGBC and grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Nobody's planning a hunt. All we did was talk about the fact that hunting is one of the tools in the toolbox."
Several conservation groups were quick to decry the IGBC's announcement. A spokesperson from the Buffalo Field Campaign publicly questioned why the discussion was taking place before grizzlies are even delisted. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition posted its opinion online, stating "it is far too early to be talking about the hunting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear" and proposing that a five-year hunting moratorium be considered once the species is delisted.
Conservationists with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council have argued that even the notion of delisting the species in Yellowstonepopulation roughly 600 grizzliesor the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystempopulation roughly 1,000 grizzliesis premature.
Servheen says he's only fielded one "nasty-gram" since the committee released its position to the public Dec. 14. Compared to more immediate topics addressed during the committee's three-day meeting, Servheen believes talk about hunting provisions that are still years away is a "minor issue." IGBC spokesman and Idaho Fish and Game representative Gregg Losinski says the committee only now decided to discuss hunting because the Yellowstone and NCDE have recently hit certain "trigger points" on the path to delisting. Those triggers include an ongoing study of the impacts of changing food sources on grizzlies in Yellowstone, as well as a post-delisting conservation strategy proposal for the NCDE due out early next year.
"It's always been there," Losinski says of the potential for grizzly hunting. "It's always been part of the recovery discussion. But it was always a part that nobody wanted to get into because recovery seemed far enough away, why talk about it?"
The reaction from conservation organizations was a small price to pay for what last week's discussion accomplished: It put the potential of hunting grizzlies on the public's radar. The final decision will eventually fall to individual states and not the IGBC, which has no regulatory authority of its own. That means extensive public input on a hot-button issue. Montana, Idaho and Wyoming may still be years away from such debates, but people are now keenly aware that hunting may wind up on the table.
"We wanted to be really transparent about it and say that one of the tools that might be used is hunting," Servheen says. "Nuisance management is also out there, where managers take bears. Prevention is a big part of the program, where we use electric fencing and other things to keep bears out of trouble."
The IGBC didn't take the question of possible future hunts on grizzlies lightly. Losinski says the official position required "a lot of word-smithing." None of the agencies involvedfrom the Forest Service to state land management bureaus to various Canadian partnersrushed into anything, Servheen adds. It's taken 30 years just to get to the point where certain grizzly populations are healthy enough to even broach this subject.
"It shows how careful and guarded our efforts are to be doing the right thing and do it in a very careful fashion," Servheen says. "If anything, people should be saying, 'These guys take a long time to get anything done.'"
For Losinski, there's additional motivation in advancing the discussion of what the IGBC holds to be biologically recovered grizzly populations. States need to start thinking about how to pay for grizzly conservation once the animals are delisted. And federal agencies need to be able to focus their efforts in ecosystems where grizzlies number in only the dozens, if that.
"They need to be able to focus their efforts toward the Cabinet-Yaak, toward the North Cascades, toward the Bitterroot," Losinski says, referring to three areas with few or no bears. "The Yellowstone and the NCDE? Biologically, they're there."