Last month, the state of Wyoming approved a proposed hunt on grizzly bears in the autumn – which will be the first time hunters have been allowed to target the animals in the region for 44 years. They have established that a total of 22 bears may be shot and killed in the areas around both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
The decision has sparked outrage from many animal rights activists, environmentalists and Native American communities, but has garnered support from some members of the public alongside hunting advocates. So what are the arguments behind the controversy and why did Wyoming ultimately decide to permit the hunt?
The ruling has only been made possible because of a decision made last year by the federal government to remove the status of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) as ‘threatened’. This change in status reflects that fact that the local population has rebounded to around 700 animals from only 136 in 1975, when the bears were given emergency federal protection
However many conservationists fear that, despite this recovery, GYE grizzly bears are still in a fairly vulnerable position and population health could be compromised by the reintroduction of hunting. Although numbers have increased overall during the past few decades, 2016 marked the third year that the population size had actually decreased again. The animals are incredibly slow to reproduce, and as Bonnie Rice of the environmental organisation Sierra Club points out, there’s a risk that highly reproductive females such as the famous ‘Grizzly 399’ – who has so far birthed 17 cubs in her 22 years of life – may be shot, which could have a tangible impact on reproduction rates in the area, as well as causing much public upset.
Photo credit: Flickr | USFWS Mountain-Prairie
The bears are also facing a number of new threats, such as a reduction in the availability of one of their key food sources – whitebark pine. These trees have been suffering due to a combination of infestation, fires and climate change and could face possible extinction. Grizzly bears eat the whitebark pine nuts in the autumn to help them fatten up for winter – increasing the chances that females will have successful pregnancies – but with the availability of these nuts decreasing the bears are tempted into more human-occupied areas to find livestock, garbage, bird feeders and other food sources. This increases the likelihood of human-bear interactions, which can result in bears being killed either by road collisions or in self-defence or that of livestock. Indeed, in 2015 the number of recorded grizzly casualties reached a record high of 61 – compared to 29 and 28 in 2013 and 2014 respectively – with most of these deaths believed to have been caused by human-related activities The figures for 2016 and 2017 have remained in the high fifties.
Many conservationists therefore believe that, despite numbers having rebounded significantly since the 70s, it would be unwise to pose any new threats to the bears such as hunting, when it appears that this growth has halted or could be in reverse. When the federal government lifted the grizzlies’ protected status last year, Bonnie Rice stated that “the mortalities keep escalating and the population keeps dropping. We don’t think now is the time to remove Endangered Species Act protections; we need more time to study these trends.” Although the protection has now been taken away, states such as Wyoming could still have chosen to not allow the hunting of grizzlies at this point in time whilst the population growth seems to be wavering. It could also be argued that even if they do wish to approve some hunting activity; to allow a total of 22 grizzly bears to be killed in the first year that hunting has been permitted in four decades seems excessive. If there is another high year of accidental grizzly casualties on top of this – say 61 again – this would bring the total number of dead grizzlies to 83; which is over 11% of the entire estimated population of 700.
Photo credit: Pixabay | wschwisow
However, it could be the case that the plateauing and decreasing of population numbers is not as concerning as it first appears. When the grizzly bear’s national protection was removed last year, The Fish and Wildlife Service (the public body responsible for categorising species’ status) gave the following reasoning for their decision: they believe that the Yellowstone grizzly population is not able to increase much further, declaring that “the population’s stability from 2002-2014 and other population trends indicate that the GYE is at or near its carrying capacity for grizzly bears.” The fact that an increasing number of grizzlies are being caught up in human-bear conflict could also be a reflection of this – since the bears are beginning to venture further and further afield as the population in their current location has reached its maximum limit If this is the case, reintroducing hunting within reasonable limits could potentially serve to contain the population within a desired area – preventing the grizzlies from spreading further into human occupied areas and resulting in more conflict.
But there is more to this debate than arguments purely to do with environmental conservation and management. Overarching the entire conversation is a question of ethics – is it morally justifiable to shoot and kill a wild animal; moreover, one which isn’t going to be eaten as food? Many of the participants in the Wyoming hunt will be taking part because they see killing a grizzly bear as some kind of ultimate personal victory. In the words of Scott Weber, a member of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife – “the greatest trophy in the Lower 48 is a male grizzly. Now you won’t have to go to Alaska to get a grizzly”. Much of the public disapproval of the hunt appears to stem from a sense of discomfort with the idea of killing an animal for sport – in a similar way to how the topic of fox hunting stirs strong emotions here in the UK. Some people argue that although farmers may need to shoot foxes from time to time for threatening their poultry or livestock, the idea of making a sport out of chasing and killing an animal for ‘fun’ is morally bankrupt.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons | Terry Tollefsbol
Other ethical arguments come into play here. Last June several Native American tribes sued the federal government for removing the grizzly’s protected status, on the grounds that the bears are of “deep cultural and religious importance” to their customs and beliefs. According to the complaint “the spiritual health of both the tribal and individual Plaintiffs depends upon the health and protection of the [greater Yellowstone] grizzly bear.” This lawsuit is still ongoing, as well as others brought by environmentalists. Even for those who do not share the beliefs of these tribe members, there is still the moral issue of treating others’ deepest held spiritual views with respect and believing that they have the right to express and protect their values. Killing grizzly bears for sport on the land which native peoples have inhabited for thousands of years, when these animals are of such religious significance to them, is disrespectful and arguably infringes on their rights as equal citizens.
All in all, the question of whether or not the population of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area has recovered enough to withstand renewed hunting appears to remain a contested issue. Even if the region is at its current carrying capacity for grizzlies, this is not to say that the effects of hunting on top of an increasing number of accidental casualties, food source depletion and the impact of climate change will not be detrimental to the species’ population health. And aside from this, there are important moral considerations to take into account when debating whether or not Wyoming should have reinstated hunting in the area.