Senate Republicans on Tuesday called on their chamber to take action on growing concerns about grizzly bears bumping up against humans in the Yellowstone area.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming spearheaded a letter asking key Senate Democrats to hold an “immediate” hearing on the Grizzly Bear State Management Act of 2021, which would direct the Interior Department to remove the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies from the endangered species list.
“The Grizzly Bear State Management Act is essential to ensuring the recovery of the GYE grizzly is a happy conservation success story, not a grisly failure,” reads the letter obtained by The Washington Times.
The letter, sent to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair Tom Carper and wildlife subcommittee chair Tammy Duckworth, comes with the apex predators thriving in the Yellowstone region, fueling encounters between tourists and the increasingly visible “roadside bears.”
“Grizzlies are moving well beyond areas where the bears can exist, causing loss of human life, damage to livestock, and eroding public support for the recovery of this iconic and important species. Clearly, this is not good for either public safety or the welfare of the animal,” reads the Senate Republicans’ letter.
So far this year, “more than 42 grizzly bears have been euthanized due to conflicts with humans, killed by other bears, drowned in canals, or hit by cars,” the letter states.
A Montana state report released in April cited 87 conflicts in 2020 and 111 in 2019 in the state’s section of the Greater Yellowstone region, up from the 10-year average of 81. Fourteen of the 2020 conflicts were between bears and humans.
Frank T. van Manen, U.S. Geological Survey supervisory research wildlife biologist, said encounters between humans and grizzlies are on the rise.
“For grizzly bears, we have documented an increase in the number of human-bear conflicts in areas like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where they have expanded their range about three-fold over four decades and increasingly occupy areas where human use and influence on the landscape is greater,” Mr. van Manen told Field & Stream magazine in a Sept. 2 article.
In April, backcountry guide Charles “Carl” Mock, 40, was killed by a male grizzly while fishing just outside Yellowstone. The bear was killed by game wardens after it charged them as they investigated the attack, according to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
In May, a male grizzly charged a park ranger as he sought to move back Yellowstone tourists who had come within 20 yards of a breeding pair to take photos in violation of park regulations requiring visitors to stay 100 yards away.
The same month, a 39-year-old man was mauled as he hiked along the Beaver Ponds Trail. In June 2020, a 37-year-old woman hiking alone on Fairy Falls Trail was knocked down by a female grizzly that was “protecting her offspring following a close-range encounter,” said bear management biologist Kerry Gunther.
Last year, two grizzlies were euthanized after entering an occupied tent and a recreational vehicle storage compartment near Yellowstone, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said the Yellowstone grizzlies were listed in 1975 after their population had dwindled to 136, but their numbers have since rebounded to 728 in 2019. The bears are now at or near the carrying capacity for the park, according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
That estimate may be low: The Senate Republicans said other sources place the number of Yellowstone grizzly bears as high as 1,200.
“We hear often from outfitters, hikers, hunters, ranchers, and other public land users of their concern over this issue,” the letter states. “We feel compelled to take action.”
Since 2005, the service has sought to delist the Yellowstone grizzly, calling it “biologically recovered,” but federal judges in 2009 and 2018 blocked efforts to remove the bears from Endangered Species Act protections in response to lawsuits from wildlife groups.
The Center for Biological Diversity has fought to keep federal protections for the bears, citing plans after the 2017 delisting for “trophy hunts in Wyoming and Idaho” that would have allowed up to 23 bears to be killed outside Yellowstone.
In July 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld the lower court decision blocking the service from removing federal protections.
“The courts have repeatedly slammed the Fish and Wildlife Service for prematurely removing federal protections from grizzly bears,” Andrea Zaccardi, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “I hope the agency will now concentrate on fully recovering these magnificent animals, not stripping them of needed safeguards.”
While efforts to delist the bear have spanned the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, the Biden administration broke with the trend in March by recommending no change to the grizzly’s threatened status.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which pegs the Yellowstone grizzly population at more than 1,000, estimates that the bears’ range has expanded in the last decade from 19,000 to 27,000 square miles, according to an Oct. 13 report in the Cody Enterprise.
The Republican letter was signed by Ms. Lummis and Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mike Crapo and James E. Risch of Idaho, and Steve Daines of Montana.
Greater Yellowstone is one of federal recovery ecosystems for grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. The others are the Northern Continental Divide, the Bitterroot, the Selkirk, the Cabinet-Yaak, and the North Cascades.
About 55,000 grizzly bears roam North America, including an estimated 1,400 to 1,700 grizzlies in the Lower 48 States and 31,000 in Alaska, where they are not listed under the Endangered Species Act.