In a loud declaration to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a key committee meeting in Cody last week endorsed the methods for Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to employ if the government removes federal protection of the Yellowstone grizzly.
The culmination of a series of steps since Fish & Wildlife recommended delisting the bear from the Endangered Species Act last March took place at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West on Wednesday before about 75 people.
For some, the adoption of a 150-page conservation strategy for state management represented an acknowledged turning point in the 40 year history to rescue the bear from potential extinction.
“This is a very momentous day,” Park County commissioner Joe Tilden said.
By a margin of 18-1 with one abstention, the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee voted to approve the strategy for future handling of the bears in a rare Cody meeting.
The YES committee is made up of representatives of local, state and federal agencies and area Native American tribes, and there was overwhelming agreement it is time to provide Fish and Wildlife with the required guidelines.
“It’s like a big weight off our shoulders,” said Loren Grosskopf, who is a Park County commissioner and a member of the YES committee.
He also served on the sub-committee that conferred and convened repeatedly in recent months to hammer out the final language.
Not everyone was satisfied with the plan being forwarded on what long has been a contentious matter.
The no vote came from Dan Wenk, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, who felt some word choices were ambiguous when it comes to ensuring protection of a stable bear population.
The abstention came from Leander Watson of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe.
Tribes oppose delisting based on the possibility that hunting will become an element of the states’ management program (it is a provided-for option) and because the grizzly is considered sacred in certain religions.
Watson said he received no instructions on how to vote.
The prevailing opinion, from the YES committee and many other sources, is that the Yellowstone grizzly is a grand conservation success story and it is time for the bears’ removal from the Endangered Species Act.
In the early 1970s the population was estimated as a fragile 136, leading to the extension of federal oversight in 1975 under a designation of threatened for fear they might go extinct.
Gradually, the population was revitalized and in 2006 Fish and Wildlife first suggested delisting the bear. That was done in 2007, but opponents filed lawsuits and in 2009 a federal court over-ruled the agency.
Since then, monitoring and evaluations, scientific study and debates have characterized slow-moving governmental action to revisit delisting.
There are wide areas of disagreements between advocacy groups on policy and even on how many grizzlies are in the ecosytem.
As far back as April 2015, when the YES committee last convened in Cody, there was talk of there being 1,000 to 1,200 bears in the designated monitoring area.
Yet using conservative methodology through radio collaring and ground observation and aerial flights, it was agreed to stick with an estimate of 757 bears.
A year ago the figure used was 717 and the new figure advanced for 2016 is 690.
Still, many involved in bear work believe there are far more bears in the region than the acknowledged total.
“There is,” Grosskopf said of the 1,200.
Frank van Manen of the United States Geological Survey in Bozeman, Mont., estimates at least 1,000.
Even Wenk, who opposed the strategy, said, “There still may be 1,200.”
The high estimate stems from a newer methodology which the YES committee did not believe it could count on yet. Van Manen said this second scientific method may be the wave of the future.
Opponents of delisting – some certain to go to court to fight a Fish and Wildlife final order – do not even trust the reliability of the conservative total. They worry about the two-year decline in the estimated population, are extremely opposed to any hunting, and say the strategy and turnover of bear protection to the states are flawed ideas.
Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club and Kelly Nokes of WildEarth Guardians spoke against the strategy, along with Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. They said they want to see a decent interval for public comment on this conservation strategy before any additional delisting step is taken.
The strategy calls for the minimum grizzly population in the prescribed 23,828 square-kilometer recovery area to remain above 600.
Also, mothers with cubs are to be constantly monitored to ensure a sustainable population.
Until 24 hours before the session there was still disagreement about the document wording in some key areas. Language was hammered out at the last minute.
A few, including Wenk, derided some word selection as ambiguous. He said he is disappointed with the vagueness of the “foreseeable future” phrase as it applies to the long-term health of the Yellowstone grizzly.
The agreed-upon document must now be signed by the department heads who are superiors of YES committee members – expected to be accomplished by mid-December.
Then it is goes to Fish and Wildlife in Washington, D.C. and director Dan Ashe. Ashe, who has served in the role since 2011, is likely to be replaced after Jan. 20 when Donald Trump takes over the presidency from Barack Obama.
If this administration is going to make the final call on delisting it should happen by the third week in January.
While there is no obvious reason why a new director would intervene in such action, that is not an impossible scenario.
“It’s not about the election,” Grosskopf said. “So let’s get it done.”
Wyoming Game and Fish officials, who ultimately would administer bear management for the state if delisting occurs, were at the meeting in force.
Thinking back to the 2007 delisting, regional supervisor Alan Osterland said, “We’ve been at this point before. It seems everybody’s in step now.”
Not everybody. At various meetings in Cody over the years Fish and Wildlife officials predicted no matter what regulations are proposed, lawsuits will hold up implementation of delisting.
In her testimony last week, Nokes said elements of the process and in the strategy appear illegal and she cited court precedents to support her arguments.
Over the long years it took to reach this point most of those who testified at government hearings in Cody seemed to favor delisting and returning management to the states.
Many anecdotes were sworn to of frequent encounters with grizzlies at homes and in yards on the North Fork and the South Fork.
Lee Livingston, Park County Commissioner and president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, told a story. He said he was 9 in 1975 when bears were listed under the Endangered Species Act and it was rare to spot a track. Not long before this meeting, he said, he was hunting with his daughter and saw five grizzlies in one day.
“It is time to move forward with delisting,” Livingston said.
– Lew Freedman – Cody Enterprise