Image: nps.gov

For grizzly bears, leaving national park boundaries could soon be a life-or-death decision.

The states surrounding Yellowstone National Park are considering initiating grizzly bear hunts for the first time in decades after the Trump administration removed Endangered Species Act protections for the bears last summer. In Idaho, where the state’s Fish and Game Commission voted 7-0 on Thursday to gather public comments on the possible hunt, this would mean the killing of just one male grizzly bear during this fall’s hunting season.

Yellowstone Grizzly bears were added to the Endangered species list in 1975 after being almost completely wiped out. In the decades since, their population has grown from under 150 to around 700, but they still only occupy a tiny fraction of their original range. With ESA protections lifted, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are now able to consider allowing grizzly bear hunts. Montana decided to pass this year, while Wyoming is considering permitting the hunting of 12 bears, two of which could be female.

These grizzly hunts would take place in a region surrounding Yellowstone National Park called the Demographic Monitoring Area, although Wyoming’s hunt would also include another 12 grizzlies outside the area for 24 in total. The number of bears that can be hunted is determined by the size of the state’s DMA area and grizzly bear mortality observations within the area.

GIF: Wyoming Game and Fish Department

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Since the grizzlies were delisted from the ESA last year, a number of environmental and Native American groups have filed lawsuits to restore the protections and prevent the hunts. This includes the Center for Biological Diversity, which responded to Idaho’s move in favor of the hunt with dismay.

“The prospect of trophy hunting is one of many reasons Yellowstone’s grizzly bears should never have lost endangered species protection,” Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the CBD, said in a statement. “I’m sickened that someone would want to kill one of these magnificent, imperiled animals just to hang a head on their wall.”

The CBD is also notes how hard it is to institute a hunt for just a single, male bear as Idaho is now considering, given the “nearly impossible” difficulty of distinguishing between an adult male and female grizzly.

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“It is extremely irresponsible to risk the killing of a female bear in Idaho through proposing an unnecessary hunt,” said Santarsiere.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesperson Renny MacKay recently told The Washington Post that grizzly hunters would be required to undergo training to tell the difference between genders, adding that they’re “doing a whole bunch of things to make this a highly regulated approach.”

After seeing decades of growth, it appears that the Yellowstone grizzly bear population has plateaued over the last decade, and even shown some signs of decline in recent years. As Earthjustice notes, over this time, the bears have lost two important sources of food: whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, “due to changing environmental conditions driven in part by a warming climate.”

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“In the wake of these changes, scientists have documented the bears’ transition to a more meat-based diet, but that diet leads to a greater potential for conflict with humans as bears seeking meat interact with hunters and ranchers,” states the organization.

It’s legal to kill the bears under extenuating circumstances, and in 2015 a record 59 bears were killed, many by wildlife managers following up on livestock attacks, but also through car accidents. The bears often range across hundreds of miles, making it especially challenging for conservationists to keep track of their numbers and minimize conflicts.

Around another 1,000 grizzly bears live farther north near Glacier National Park in Montana. They remain under the protection of the ESA, but with President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke calling the shots, that may only be true for a matter of time.

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In announcing the decision to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the ESA last year, Zinke, who hails from Montana, said the “achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of the state, tribal, federal and private partners.”

“I can tell you that this is a long time coming and very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region,” he continued.

I guess he wasn’t including the grizzly bears as part of those communities.