The Brewing Battle Over Grizzly Delisting and Trophy Hunting in the Yellowstone Ecosystem

In recent years, we've been through what can only be called the wolf wars, as the HSUS and other animal welfare and conservation organizations, have struggled in one arena after another to prevent the government and the ranching and trophy hunting lobbies from enabling or conducting mass and inhumane killings of these still-recovering predators. Now the battle lines are being drawn in the grizzly bear wars, and the lives of an estimated 674 or so grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem are at special risk. Yesterday, the Associated Press got hold of a document detailing plans by Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to divvy up trophy hunting permits for grizzlies, with these states treating delisting as a fait accompli and also displaying an irrational and frightening exuberance for authorizing trophy-hunting programs for this threatened species.

Last year, when FWS signaled the possible removal of Yellowstone grizzlies, observers knew it would hand off management of the animals to the very same state wildlife agencies in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming that have unleashed thousands of hunters and trappers to break up wolf families and kill them with an arsenal of guns and traps. (In the northern Rockies, wolves are now just protected in Wyoming - and only there thanks to legal action by The HSUS and other groups, as well as defensive maneuvers we've made in Congress to prevent delisting). This is a dangerous delegation of power to states where politics routinely trump science, common sense, and humane sensibilities when it comes to the status and role of predators.

For those in need of visual aid and a compelling argument, your best source is Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek; An Intimate Portrait of 399, a compelling new book by nature photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen and environmental journalist Todd Wilkinson. Over 240 pages of stunning photography and accompanying narrative, the pair recounts the tale of well-known Yellowstone mama bear 399, her successive sets of cubs, and their struggles to make a life in one of the nation's last remaining grizzly refuges. It's the kind of book you might leave centered on a table in your living room, so guests can marvel at the grandeur of Yellowstone and its most powerful and awe-inspiring predator. But the narrative penned by Wilkinson is no less absorbing, conveying a message of critical importance to the survival of one of our most iconic species. Wilkinson paints a comprehensive portrait of the challenges facing grizzlies, reminding us that it's not just the prospect of trophy hunting that threatens grizzly bears, but also dangers posed by low reproductive rates, climate change, the loss of key food sources, and more.

As Wilkinson notes, in the mid-18th century there were around 50,000 grizzlies roaming the area that now encompasses the United States. Today, estimates put their numbers between 800 to 1,000 in the lower 48. As such, one would be hard-pressed to argue that grizzlies are thriving - even with around 674 of them roaming our first national park. Part of this is biological: they have a startlingly slow reproductive rate and continue to die at only slightly lower rates than those at which they give birth. There were an estimated 59 bear deaths in Yellowstone this year alone.

Human threats are hitting bears from multiple angles. Traditionally, whitebark pine nuts have provided one of the core dietary staples for grizzly bears. Yet, the whitebark pine tree has recently faced assault by mountain pine beetles and a virulent fungus called blister rust. Another source of sustenance - cutthroat trout - is in decline due to the introduction of non-native trout into Yellowstone Lake. Army cutworm moths, considered a favorite snack of grizzlies, are vulnerable to pesticide use and habitat disruption, increasingly likely due to global warming. And winter kill food sources such as elk are in shorter supply now than in recent years due to increased predation from humans, wolves, and cougars.

A more fundamental argument against delisting exists - bad facts. A 2013 paper by two prominent biologists suggests that grizzly bear counts could well be overestimated, and stem from certain ingrained methodological flaws, including non-standardized population count methods and increased efforts to search for bears in well-identified habitats. Further, somewhere between 46 to 66 percent of grizzly bears killed by humans go undetected; they regularly succumb to M-44 cyanide capsules used against coyotes and other smaller predators.

Still, we can't forget the moral aspect of killing these remarkable animals for their heads, and one need only flip through Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek to find it staring back at you. If we allow the trophy hunting of grizzlies in Yellowstone, those bears who are both wary of people but tolerant of them may be the first to go. That could mean 399 and her brood, who have for many years ignored the hordes of onlookers and snapping cameras without incident.

Is this how their well-documented journey should end? This new book by Mangelsen and Wilkinson provides a clear answer; I would urge readers to discover it for themselves. And get ready for battle as the grizzly bear wars begin early this year.

This article first appeared on Wayne Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.