CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Gov. Matt Mead and other top Wyoming officials took issue Wednesday with a court ruling that keeps Yellowstone region grizzly bears on the federal endangered species list, with some saying the state could appeal in hopes of gaining jurisdiction over bear management.
Many Wyoming residents, including outfitters and cattlemen, say the state must take over grizzly bear management to allow controlled hunting that would reduce the bear population. Some environmentalists, however, say public opinion nationwide goes squarely against allowing sport hunting of the majestic predators.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from turning management of grizzly bears over to Wyoming and other states in the region. The judges said the future of bears is uncertain because whitebark pine trees, which provide nuts for the bears, are in decline.
Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said Tuesday's ruling troubles Mead because population goals for the bears have been met. There are an estimated 600 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone region, which includes Yellowstone National Park and surrounding lands in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Mead "is disappointed about the court's ruling on whitebark pine and we will evaluate Wyoming's options over the coming weeks." MacKay said. He did note the governor "is pleased that the court held there are adequate regulatory mechanisms in place to conserve the recovered grizzly bear population after delisting."
Deputy Attorney General Jay Jerde said that the state's options could include asking the appeals court to reconsider, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court or allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with another plan for delisting the grizzlies.
Rep. Pat Childers, R-Cody, has worked on wildlife issues for years. He said constituents increasingly are complaining about conflicts with the bears, which have killed four people in Wyoming and Montana in the last two years.
"There's going to be a child killed one of these days, and then possibly the judges out there in the 9th Circuit will realize that we've got a problem out here," Childers said.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said his group supports giving the state game department the flexibility to respond to bears infringing on people's private property.
"Unlike the wolf, the bear is destructive in many different ways," Magagna said. "The wolf generally kills livestock or maybe pets. The bear can do a lot of property damage as well."
Todd Stevie, a Pinedale outfitter who serves as president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, said Wednesday he believes the court made the wrong decision. He said grizzlies are having a large effect on other wildlife in some areas of Wyoming.
"Science plays no part in the Endangered Species Act anymore," Stevie argued. "The anti-hunting groups don't want anything to get hunted, and they use the Endangered Species Act to keep them from getting hunted."
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Montana conservation group, filed the lawsuit against ending federal protections for grizzlies that led to Tuesday's ruling.
Mike Clark, executive director of the coalition, insisted Wednesday that "the spectacle of sports hunting where people can go out and take bears for trophies or for fun is not something I think is going to go over well with the American public."
Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Mont., said Wyoming game managers already have considerable authority to help ranchers and others deal with bears that might pose a threat. Her group filed papers with the appeals court on the whitebark pine issue.
Willcox said it may be possible to end federal protections for the grizzly even with the decline of the whitebark pine if the bears are allowed to re-establish sizeable populations in suitable areas, such as the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.
"It is a social question of where on the landscape we want bears and how we're going to ensure that we're ahead of the curve in terms of conflict," Willcox said.