Chronicle column: Let’s hold off on hunting bears

The following was first published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle as a guest opinion by GYC Executive Director Caroline Byrd. 

When people start talking about managing grizzly bears, it can start discussions as fierce and wild and varied as the bears themselves. The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s current proposal to move bears off the endangered species list is a perfect example of how bear management draws out a wide spectrum of vocal opinions. 

We knew where we stood on this idea in 2007, when we sued the Service and won. Today, like many other grizzly bear advocates, we are struggling with a process that is so disjointed, incomplete, and rushed that it’s hard to know how bears will fare if delisted. Key pieces of the post-delisting management plan are missing. Federal, state, and tribal partners are clearly not on the same page. But this we do know: The rush to hunt grizzly bears leaves little room for reasonable discussion. 

In just 40 years, grizzly bears have come from the brink of extinction to robust enough numbers to prompt today’s discussions about removing them from the endangered species list, or delisting. It’s a conservation success story. And it’s a testament to the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness. We are enormously grateful to the federal and state wildlife managers, agency staff, organizations, communities and landowners who’ve contributed to this success. Now we need to keep the momentum going. We can do that if we focus on the critical questions around delisting: How can we protect the wild places bears need to thrive? How can we stitch together corridors and connections between Yellowstone and Glacier bears? How can people better co-exist with bears?  

Whatever your position on delisting grizzly bears, we can all agree that turning the delisting discussion into a hunting discussion creates an emotionally charged quagmire that will bog all of us down. You may recall the weeks of outrage that followed a certain African lion hunt last July. Let’s avoid this. 

GYC opposes hunting grizzly bears. At a minimum, we’re asking for a five-year moratorium on hunting if the Service delists bears. This will allow a smoother transition from federal to state management. It will give the states time to demonstrate their commitments to managing a healthy grizzly bear population. It will give us the chance to reduce conflicts between humans and bears, the number-one cause of bear deaths.  

Last year bear deaths were a record 61 due to these conflicts. Bears have been killed after getting into improperly stored food and garbage, and they’ve been euthanized after killing cows and sheep. Accidental, fatal run-ins between hunters and bears have also spiked in recent years. These avoidable incidents are killing too many bears. 

It’s possible to keep people safe and bears wild. We’ve been working at it for more than 30 years. Greater Yellowstone Coalition works with ranchers to keep bears away from livestock using proven tools like range riders and electric fence.  We’re working with the Forest Service to install bear boxes in all 164 campgrounds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. More people, but still not enough, are carrying bear spray when they hike in Greater Yellowstone. But as last year demonstrated, we still have a long way to go. 

Considering a new delisting rule against a backdrop of record-high conflicts and grizzly bear deaths demands a conservative, cautious approach. We need a rule that honors the legacy of grizzly bear conservation in this region and guarantees bears will be enjoyed by Yellowstone visitors for generations to come. What we don’t need right now is to introduce another source of bear mortality. And we don’t need to spend precious time simply arguing over whether to hunt them. The various groups, agencies, bear activists, bear hunters, and ultimately, the bears, will all benefit from a cease-fire over hunting.  

-- Caroline Byrd, Executive Director