Senate Committee Deliberates Returning Grizzly Bear Management Back to Where It Belongs – With State Agencies

Earlier today, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 614, the  Grizzly Bear State Management Act. Senator John Barrasso (R – WY), chairman of the Committee, called the meeting to order. Senator Barrasso is a frequent champion of conservation policies grounded in sound science and devoid of the emotional bias that so often inhibits the implementation of legislation like this.

S. 614 would direct the Secretary of the Interior to reissue the final rule delisting the Greater Yellowstone population of grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) list of threatened species–something that SCI has staunchly supported for years now. Removing the bears from the ESA’s protection would return the management of this population to the states. This legislation would also protect that ruling from the judicial review process, freeing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from the burdensome lawsuits that have inhibited delisting for decades. The bill was introduced by Senator Mike Enzi (R – WY) and is co-sponsored by Senator Barrasso as well as Senators from the three states impacted by the bill (Daines (R – MT), Crapo (R – ID), and Risch (R – ID)).

“The grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is fully recovered. End of story,” said Senator Barrasso. “It is one of the greatest recovery successes since the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. It is a conservation triumph led by the people of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. It is a triumph that all Americans should celebrate.”

But instead of celebrating this conservation success story, animal rights and anti-hunting groups have repeatedly challenged the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s efforts to delist the bears. These groups have sought to remove science from the process and sway federal courts with emotionally charged rhetoric,, obstructing broader long-term conservation goals for the species.

Throughout the hearing, Senator Barrasso laid out extremely compelling arguments supporting this legislation. Among other things, he emphasized the point that the full recovery and delisting of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears is one of the few issues on which Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump have all agreed.

“Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho first achieved all of the grizzly bear’s recovery objectives in 1997 – 23 years ago. By 2003, they had met all of its recovery objectives for six consecutive years – the standard required by the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. The states have met – or exceeded – all of the bear’s recovery objectives ever since,” said Barrasso.

Evidence backs up his claims. In 2007 the Bush Administration published a final rule to delist the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies; however, that rule was overturned by a federal judge who held that the FWS had not fully considered the impact of a decline in an important food source on the bear population. Further research was duly completed by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, who determined that food availability was not a threat to the bear population’s sustainability.

A decade later, the Obama Administration recognized the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears’ full recovery when it published a proposed rule delisting the grizzly bear in 2016. The proposed rule concluded that the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population had rebounded from as few as 136 bears in 1975 to more than 700 in 2016. (That number is believed to be even higher – closer to 1,000 today.) Grizzly bears have more than doubled their range since the mid-1970s and now occupy over 22,500 square miles surrounding Yellowstone National Park. The grizzly bear population has maintained stable population numbers for a decade, indicating that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is at or near the carrying capacity for the species.

In 2017, the Trump Administration agreed with these findings and finalized a rule to delist grizzly bears. Yet again, a federal judge overturned the delisting rule and substituted his view of the science in place of experts in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies.

During the Senate Committee hearing, experts provided both oral and written testimony in support of the Service’s multiple efforts to delist the bears and the proposed delisting in S. 614. All three witnesses acknowledged that the recovery of Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears is a conservation success story. Patrick Crank, Vice President of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, highlighted the fact that it would be nearly impossible to find a scientist who would disagree with population estimates of about 1,000 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – and as of 2020, grizzly bears inhabit every mile of suitable habitat in the Yellowstone area.

Because the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population has recovered so successfully, Senate Committee members emphasized the need for management to return to the state agencies they feel are better equipped to manage wildlife within their own borders. “The authority to manage the species needs to be turned over to the states. I often found that States are better suited to address these kinds of issues because they are more familiar with the unique needs of their own communities and ecosystems. We cannot let this be another decision made out by out of touch courts, carefully chosen courts, rather than science, common sense, and by states that have the ability to effectively manage and protect species as well as everything that grizzly bears interact with,” remarked Senator Enzi during the hearing.

“State wildlife management agencies have worked side by side with federal and tribal wildlife managers on grizzly bear recovery efforts for decades.  SCI will continue supporting the transition of management over to the states and continue to advocate for hunting as a management tool for grizzlies,” said Ben Cassidy, SCI’s Director of Government Affairs. “Hunting is a vital part of management strategies for almost every single species of large mammal in North America.  Grizzly bears should no longer be an exception and their population recovery should be celebrated.”