Wyoming approves controversial hunt of Yellowstone area grizzlies

PINEDALE, Wyo. (Reuters) - State wildlife officials approved plans on Wednesday for Wyoming’s first season of grizzly bear hunting in 43 years, a move cheered by sportsmen but decried by Native Americans and conservation groups fighting to restore Endangered Species Act protections to the bears.

FILE PHOTO: A grizzly bear roams through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, U.S. on May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The decision, clearing the way for hunters to shoot and kill as many as 22 grizzlies in a season that begins on Sept. 1, comes two weeks after the neighboring state of Idaho approved a plan allowing for no more than one grizzly to be taken in its hunting season opening the same day.

The stage for state-licensed hunting of grizzlies outside of Yellowstone National Park was set last June when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the large, hump-shouldered bears would cease to be listed as a threatened species in the region.

The Trump administration’s decision to de-list the grizzly, formally proposed in 2016 during the Obama era, was based on agency findings that the bears’ numbers have rebounded enough in recent decades that federal safeguards are no longer necessary.

The move left management of the bears entirely to the discretion of the three states bordering Yellowstone -- Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

Environmental activists have since sued the U.S. government seeking to restore the grizzly’s federally protected status, arguing, among other things, that climate change and poaching still threaten the species’ viability.

Unlike Wyoming and Idaho, Montana has decided against opening a grizzly season, citing concerns about the long-term recovery of a bear population that is arguably one of the most celebrated and photographed in the world.

Slow to reproduce, grizzlies number fewer than 2,000 in the Lower 48 states. That compares to an historic high of 100,000 before widespread shooting, poisoning and trapping had reduced their numbers to just several hundred by 1975, when they were placed under federal protection.

Grizzlies also are at the heart of a cultural divide between Native Americans, who revere the bears, and ranchers and others who see the creatures as potential threats to livestock and impediments to more mining, logging and fossil energy development.

In a news conference on Wednesday, tribal leaders denounced Wyoming’s planned hunt, which includes a provision for grizzly-baiting under certain circumstances in some areas.

“This is a sacred being that is central to our religious and life ways. This is not a hunting issue; this is a killing issue,” said Brian Jackson of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

Meanwhile, sportsmen are clamoring for licenses in a hunt that Wyoming officials insisted would not significantly reduce the grizzly population.

Supporters also contend the state should be able to manage its wildlife as it sees fit.

“Wyoming owns the wildlife. I would like to see us exercise that authority,” said Jim Allen, a rancher and hunting outfitter in the state.

Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler