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Environmental Groups to Sue Wyoming over Grizzly Hunts

Several environmentalist groups have announced their intention to sue the state, challenging a new law that allows for the first Wyoming grizzly bear hunts in decades.

The bill in question, Senate File 93, was signed into law by Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon on Feb. 15, and gives the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission the authority to hold a grizzly bear hunt if certain criteria are met.

The commission needs to determine that a grizzly bear hunt would be beneficial in managing the state’s wildlife populations and is necessary to preserve the safety of Wyoming citizens and tourists.

If such a hunt is deemed necessary, SF93 states that the commission may issue licenses and establish dates, times, and locations of the hunt.

With the new law, Wyoming’s leaders have stepped up to openly challenge and circumvent a ruling by Montana Federal Judge Dana Christensen, who blocked the first  Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) grizzly hunt last August by restoring federal protections for the species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

SF93 states that Christensen’s ruling robs the state of its ability to “protect the safety of its citizens, particularly in light of grizzly bear attacks on workers and other citizens and tourists of the state.”

The Mountain Journal reports that grizzly attacks in the lower 48 are infrequent, with 23 fatal grizzly attacks in Montana and Wyoming since 1967.

However, since May 2010, grizzlies have killed eight people in Wyoming and Montana, with seven of the eight incidents occurring in the GYE.

The most recent incident involved Jackson Hole hunting guide Mark Uptain, who was killed by a mother grizzly and her cub in the Teton Wilderness last September.

Efforts by wildlife managers to reduce the number of human-bear conflicts are constantly ongoing.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department captured over 50 bears in 2018, more than half of which were euthanized due to a history of previous conflicts, close association with humans, and others deemed unsuitable for release, according to a report from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

SF93 alleges that the state continues to bear the brunt of the costs associated with grizzly bear management efforts, while at the same time lacking any real authority to make grizzly bear management decisions.

A grizzly bear management hunt is necessary, SF93 states, to ensure the GYE grizzly population continues to recover through effective population management tactics and residents and visitors to Wyoming are protected from dangerous and deadly grizzly bear encounters.

Some environmentalist groups, however, take issue with the new law. The Center for Biological Diversity, Earth Justice, Sierra Club, the Northern Cheyenne tribe, along with the National Park Conservation Association, had all been involved in the 2018 decision to block the first grizzly hunt.

The groups had praised Christensen’s ruling, and with the passage of SF93, the gloves are coming off.

“This is an egregious attempt to ignore federal law protecting Yellowstone’s iconic grizzly bears,” Bonnie Rice, senior representative with the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “We will not idly stand by while Wyoming moves to illegally take authority for managing grizzly bears and subject them to trophy hunts.”

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director for the Western Watersheds Project, accused Wyoming of being stuck in a “19th Century mindset in which the response to every situation is to kill off native predators.”

The groups have publicly released their intent to sue Wyoming, claiming the new state law violates the ESA and the U.S. Constitution, which reportedly requires that federal law must supersede state law.

Sen. Wyatt Agar, R-Thermopolis, however, argues through SF93 that certain powers not granted to the federal government elsewhere in the Constitution are reserved for the state, as agreed upon in the Act of Admission that was adopted by Wyoming when it became a state.

Legalities and technicalities aside, the issue surrounding a Wyoming grizzly hunt may boil down to personal ideologies, exemplified by accusations against the State Legislature by environmentalist representatives.

“The State of Wyoming has continually made it clear that they want to offer sport hunting of grizzlies for ‘recreational opportunity’,” Wyoming Wildlife Advocates’ Kristen Combs said. “Going so far as to defy federal law to cater to the bloodlust of trophy hunters is incomprehensible.”

There may be a silver lining for the state, however; SF93 states that, if extraterritorial relocation of captured problem bears is deemed beneficial, then game and fish commission may relocate captured grizzly bears to California, other states with grizzly populations well below the threshold for ESA protections, or other willing states with suitable grizzly habitat.