Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to allow hunting and baiting of up to 23 grizzly bears this fall.
The first grizzly hunt in the lower 48 states in decades comes a year after the federal government removed Endangered Species Act protections from an estimated 700 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. Grizzly protection advocates have challenged the decision, and a U.S. District Court judge in Missoula has scheduled a hearing on the matter in August.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials opted not to try a grizzly hunt in 2018, citing the potential of a court suspension. Idaho Fish and Game Department officials have proposed hunting one grizzly bear this fall.
Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and Native American tribes say the hunt would undermine decades of work to restore grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Fewer than 200 grizzly bears remained in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1975 when they were listed as a threatened species.
"We hated that they left hunting zones intact next to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks," National Parks Conservation Association Northern Rockies Regional Director Bart Melton said after the vote took place. "And we think baiting grizzly bears is unsportsmanlike and should not be used in hunting."
Delisting transferred management of the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies to the three surrounding states. An estimated 1,000 grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between Missoula and Glacier National Park remain under ESA protection.
"This came after a lot of discussions with the public about what they wanted to do in terms of grizzly bear management. We heard from the people of Wyoming; they were supportive of this. It's pretty clear the science supports this," said Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman Renny MacKay.
The last time grizzly hunting was allowed in Wyoming was 1974.
Hunting has been ongoing in Alaska where grizzlies and their minimally differentiated brown bear and Kodiak bear relatives are common. British Columbia canceled its grizzly trophy hunting season in 2017, after polls found it was no longer socially acceptable.
Under the proposed rules before the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, hunting would begin Sept. 1, in the mountains and basins populated by relatively few grizzlies farthest from Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Hunting in a zone closer to the parks would begin Sept. 15, and end in all areas by Nov. 15.
As many as 12 grizzlies could be killed in the zone farther from the parks. Closer in, the limit is 10 and hunting would be stopped once 10 males or one female are killed, whichever happens first.
No more than one grizzly hunter at a time would be allowed in the closer-in zone to help ensure nobody accidentally exceeded the quota. The hunt would close as soon as one female grizzly is killed, regardless how many bears remain in the quota.
If the hunt goes forward and demand for licenses is high, hunters might wait years for their chance. A computer program would randomly draw names of license applicants who would then pay $600 for a resident grizzly license and $6,000 if they live elsewhere. Application fees are $5 for Wyoming residents and $15 for nonresidents.
Names would be drawn until 10 hunters have paid for their licenses and certified they've taken a firearms safety course. Each license would be valid for a 10-day window of opportunity.
If approved, hunting could account for a sizeable portion of grizzly deaths in the region this year but not likely the biggest. Of the 56 known and suspected deaths of Yellowstone grizzlies in 2017, 40 were caused by people including 19 killed by elk hunters and others in self-defense.