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Bernie Kuntz: Grizzly bear issue heats up

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lifted Endangered Species protections for the Yellowstone grizzly bear last summer, declaring the bear no longer threatened, and ceded management to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

The delisting position has the preservationist organizations apoplectic, and lawsuits are flying. The opponents are the usual liberal and leftist suspects—The Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, The Western Environmental Law Center, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and the Northern Cheyenne tribe.

All sort of reasons have been thrown out there to thwart delisting—the decline of whitebark

pine nuts in the Yellowstone ecosystem, reduced cutthroat trout numbers in Yellowstone National Park, and decreased elk populations in the area (due mostly to the reintroduction of wolves—a darling project of the same preservationists.)

Much of this is nonsense. Biologists have proven that Yellowstone grizzlies always have had a

far higher diet of animal protein than grizzlies studied elsewhere. Grizzly bears are omnivorous,

meaning they will eat just about anything. (There are approximately 30,000 grizzly bears living in Alaska that have never seen a whitebark pine nut!)

The population of Yellowstone grizzlies has increased from about 200 bears forty years ago to about 600 bears in 2010, and more than 700 bears today. Outside of the park there are grizzlies in the Washakie Wilderness, North and South Absaroka Wilderness areas of Wyoming today—places where bears hadn't been seen in more than a century! There have been reports of grizzlies in the northern Wind River Range in Wyoming, again an area where grizzlies hadn't been seen in modern times.

Grizzlies occupy much of southwestern Montana and can be found in northern Idaho. Another 1,000-plus grizzly bears live in the Northern Continental Divide system in northwestern Montana, and the federal government plans to recommend delisting those bears in 2018. Watch for more lawsuits. These same organizations fought mightily to prevent state management of wolves, but they lost in court. Wolves have been legally hunted and managed in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for several years now, and contrary to the dire predictions of preservationists, wolf populations in all three states are doing fine.

Preservationists oppose state management of grizzlies because they can't stand the thought of

anyone hunting grizzly bears. They had the same sentiment about wolves and mountain lions. The latter, by the way, is a species that has been managed very successfully by the states for the last fifty years. Mountain lion populations are at all-time highs in some western states.

A real problem is the increase in grizzly bear deaths due to contact with humans, which amounts to dozens of bear deaths each year. Most of these bears were problem animals killed by wildlife officials. Some were killed by motor vehicles, others by hunters in self defense or through mistaken identity. However, one must remember that the human population living in or near grizzly bear habitat has increased dramatically in recent years.

I suspect that sometime in the next three to six years Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will be

setting very limited grizzly bear seasons, each state offering a handful of permits. Meanwhile, the preservationist organizations that filed all the lawsuits will continue to garner contributions from naïve people who believe they are helping the grizzly bear by preventing delisting.

It is undeniable that state management of wildlife has been a success with many species of

wildlife, and a grizzly bear hunt under the North American model of wildlife management funded by hunters would be further proof of that success.

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