Letters from the West

Idaho could decide this week to let you hunt grizzly bears

Will Grizzlies Return To Central Idaho?

Efforts to delist grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem raises questions about how the bruins will be restored to their ample habitat in Idaho's wild heart.(Rocky Barker)
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Efforts to delist grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem raises questions about how the bruins will be restored to their ample habitat in Idaho's wild heart.(Rocky Barker)

Wyoming announced its plans to open grizzly bear hunting, now that the bruins in Greater Yellowstone no longer have the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The reaction has been predictable. The people who didn’t want grizzlies delisted in the first place loudly protested.

“Wyoming’s reckless hunt ignores the fact that grizzly bears remain endangered in Yellowstone and across the west,” Andrea Santarsiere, an East Idaho-based senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release. “It’s tragic that these imperiled animals will be shot and killed so trophy hunters can stick heads on their walls.”

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission will hear a similar proposal by its managers to open a grizzly season this fall at its March 22 meeting in Boise. Instead of Wyoming, they could follow Montana’s example and wait.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams said her agency will manage grizzly bears for long-term recovery. It plans to prevent conflicts with humans by “continuing to work hard at responding proactively to bear conflicts, and educating people and communities in grizzly country how to be bear aware,” she said.

To meet the overall population goals, 17 male and two female grizzlies are allowed to be killed within the so-called demographic monitoring area around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Wyoming has the largest area and quota, allowing 12 bears killed. It is also allowing the same number in ranches and other areas surrounding the central grizzly habitat.

Montana would have been allowed six males. Idaho would be allowed only one inside the habitat area, which includes most of Island Park and parts of Ashton in East Idaho next to Yellowstone.

Federal officials have told the Idaho commission to consider requiring all hunters to take a mandatory bear identification class, to ensure they kill what they’re after.

Idaho game managers may also ask the commission to allow additional grizzlies to be killed outside of that habitat area, in a region west to Interstate 15. That request would likely focus on the Palisades Wilderness Study Area south of the Tetons and the Big Hole Mountains west of Teton Valley. It also could include part of the Centennial Mountains. The latter is the most important wildlife corridor linking two of the largest, wildest landscapes left in the Lower 48: the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the 22-million-acre Salmon-Selway ecosystem of Central Idaho.

If commissioners allow hunting in this critical wildlife corridor, they will make it harder for grizzly bears to migrate into Central Idaho — a region largely protected as wilderness without roads and development, and where grizzly bears were extirpated in the 1950s. Bears are still protected there under the Endangered Species Act, but only a few have wandered in from surrounding populations to the north, east and southeast.

Idaho still has grizzly bears up north in the Selkirk Mountains and the Cabinet-Yaaks near Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry. They remain protected as endangered, and the hunting proposal would not change that.

Meanwhile, our neighbor to the north, British Columbia, announced in December 2017 that it was ending grizzly hunting. The province has 15,000 grizzlies.

“It’s abundantly clear that most British Columbians do not support the killing of grizzlies,” said Doug Donaldson, British Columbia’s minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

There are many hunters who share delisting opponents’ distaste for grizzly hunting. Even more don’t like the practice of bear baiting, using food and other attractants to lure bears in. They consider it a violation of fair chase ethics, though a stronger case can be made for its use to deal with bears that become habituated to humans.

With such a low quota, Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore told hunters in 2017 not to expect a hunting season right away. The commission should stick with that advice for now.

Idaho Fish and Game provides tips for identifying black and grizzly bears and what to do when you encounter each.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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