Grizzly Bear Issues Keep Hunters Alert

A mama grizzly bear and triplets. Photo taken at a research facility at Washington State University – from behind a stout chainlink fence!

Next week I plan to be up north, in the Rocky Mountain Front country pursing my passion for chasing pheasants across that scenic, windy landscape. Besides a pocketful of shotgun shells, bear spray will be in my vest, along with an apple and some chocolate bars, in case I need an energy boost on one of my walks.

As has been widely reported, grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) are spreading out from the mountains across the prairies, re-colonizing some of their historic range. The landowners who have been kind enough to let me hunt on their property have, for the last several years, cautioned me to be on the lookout for grizzly bears.

In fact, one farm, which I’ve hunted on for many years, has a pond about 100 yards from the house. A couple years ago a mama griz and two cubs spent the better part of the summer hanging around the pond. It was one of those “you don’t bother me, we won’t bother you” situations. The bear family didn’t cause any problems and the landowner family stayed out of their way.

Still, it’s one of those situations that we can’t ignore, and lots of us probably had some sort of emotional reaction a couple weeks ago when a U.S. District Court judge in Missoula, Dana L. Christenson, ruled that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had erred when it took grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem off the endangered species list, opening the doors for states to set seasons for hunting grizzly bears.

Montana elected to not rush into a hunting season. Idaho set a season allowing the harvest of one male grizzly bear. Wyoming, however, set a season to allow the killing of up to 22 grizzly bears, including several female bears.

Judge Christenson’s decision drew cheers from many environmental organizations that objected to the initial de-listing of grizzly bears. On the other hand, the decision drew a lot of criticism from organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Safari Club International. Some individuals on social media were bitter in their denunciation of some idiot of a federal judge making such a ruling on some issue about which they figured the judge knew nothing. That, incidentally, might be a rather tamed down summary of their objections.

I think that they should have considered that the groups that sued to stop the hunting season probably had a better legal case for restoring legal protection for grizzlies. In fact, the judge’s ruling said that the Fish & Wildlife Service had failed to consider how delisting the Yellowstone area bears could affect other grizzly populations and that the FWS decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Of course, the unfortunate fact that, at about the same time, a mama grizzly with a cub had just mauled and killed a Wyoming hunting guide points to how complex our relations with the big bears can get. In this case the guide and a client went to recover an elk that had been killed the previous day. The bear, which had decided she needed the elk more than the hunters, asserted superior ownership rights and defended her claim.

Some critics maintain that grizzly bears should be hunted to make them more fearful of humans and to stay away from conflicts. Still, it’s questionable whether a limited bear hunt would teach any lessons to the general bear population. The mama bear and cub, in this case, were hunted down and killed by game wardens.

It’s a complex problem with lots of moving parts. With Endangered Species Act protections, grizzly bears are doing well. They will do better when there are more areas with grizzly bears and bears are able to migrate and connect with other populations and maintain genetic diversity.

Still, we who venture into the great outdoors have to exercise caution and pack bear spray. Some people advocate carrying a heavy-duty handgun. Unless you’re an expert (I’m not) most people are better off with bear spray.

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