National park heads take a stand for 399, other grizzlies

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

When Cecil the lion was illegally baited out of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe last summer and killed for sport by a Minnesota bow hunter, Dan Wenk wasn’t surprised by the intense public outrage that rippled around the globe.

The goal of wildlife managers is safeguarding species at population levels, he notes, but often it is the sense of connection people feel to individual animals that enables society to grasp the bigger conservation picture.

Dr. Jane Goodall, who admits to a special fondness for greater Yellowstone grizzlies, shared this observation: “When we come to ‘know’ animals through those individuals with whom we spend time, we bring them into our hearts, and indeed that’s how we protect them.”

Wenk agrees with Goodall. He understands why people become so enamored and protective. Not long after the tragedy of Cecil the lion made headlines, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park was himself on the receiving end of public fury.

A backlash erupted when Wenk made the controversial decision to destroy a mother grizzly bear that fatally mauled and partially ate a Yellowstone hiker. As a result, the sow’s two young cubs were left orphaned and will spend the rest of their days in Ohio’s Toledo Zoo.

Wenk told me recently he witnessed similar public disgust after radio-collared Yellowstone wolves were shot by sport hunters in Montana. Having given countless Yellowstone visitors joy along the park roadside and generated millions of dollars for the regional economy from people coming to see them, the wolves were killed to become trophies – and all for the expense of a cheap hunting license.

Today, Wenk and Grand Teton National Park Superintendent David Vela are raising concerns about what might happen to transboundary park bears if Yellowstone region grizzlies are removed from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Passionate discussions are occurring behind the scenes. Wenk and Vela want to ensure bears like Jackson Hole grizzly 399 and her family – widely considered the most famous bears on Earth – are not needlessly killed if states bring back a trophy sport hunt.

Grizzly 399 is a sow who spends much of her life in Grand Teton park but dens within the Pilgrim Creek drainage inside the adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Within the next few weeks, she is expected to emerge from hibernation as a 20-year-old mama with new cubs. One Jackson Hole outfitter has said that if grizzlies are ever delisted, the first bear he intends to legally target is 399 because he hates the federal government, bear-loving environmentalists and the Endangered Species Act that has given bears special protection since 1975.

“We are concerned about the potential harvest of grizzly bears adjacent to Grand Teton,” park spokesman Andrew White said. “We are committed to working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department since this is a very important issue that may negatively affect grizzlies using the park as well as bear-viewing opportunities for visitors.”

Conservationists claim Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and members of his state’s politically-appointed Game and Fish Commission have tin ears when it comes to heeding public concern for valued bears like 399.

Soon the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in collaboration with other federal and state agencies in the Yellowstone region, is expected to roll out its controversial proposed rule for removing bears from ESA protection and a companion document called the Conservation Strategy. Neither document spells out exactly when, how, where and why sport hunting of grizzlies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho would occur.

National Park Service officials are fearful that if their sport hunting issues aren’t addressed up front and subjected to public scrutiny, they will have little say in protecting transboundary bears in Yellowstone and Grand Teton after delisting occurs.

Their concerns have been brought to the attention of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

“Wyoming needs to think long and hard about its approach to bears,” said Roger Hayden of Jackson, Wyoming-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates.

“Regardless of where it happens, the state is going to face an international outcry if it recommences ‘sport hunting’ of grizzlies. It will be bad for our image and hurt our tourism economy in a way that could take a long time to recover from.

“Wildlife watching is something that sets Wyoming apart globally. Why this state would knowingly put famous bears like 399 at risk to needless killing makes no sense.”

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at Mangelsen is featured in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.