In an extremely contentious legal and social back-and-forth that has taken place over the better part of the last 3 years, Grizzly Bear hunting season is set to open on Saturday. Wildlife advocacy groups have been fighting this every step of the way, and are hoping for a last minute injunction but without a legal miracle…It is likely a Grizzly Bear will be shot in the next coming week. Legally.
As with any charismatic megafauna, the social and political clamor regarding it being hunted is deafeningly loud; the tumult of the Grizzly Bear is even more so due to the fact that it is fresh of the Endangered Species List.
Strictly speaking, wildlife advocates are against this hunting on the grounds that it was “faulty science” that removed the Grizzly Bear from the Endangered Species List, and that hunting these great beasts will undoubtedly contribute to a downward trend in their population numbers. As a guy who is both a scientist and familiar with these advocacy groups, I’ll call a spade a spade. That’s horse shit.
As far as the science goes, I’ll admit I have not read the Species Status Assessment, the legal and scientific document regarding a change in status for a species on the ESA list so I can’t speak to the soundness of the science, but I will say the motives of these wildlife advocacy groups is not to preserve sound science. It’s because they don’t want to see these marvelous animals shot and killed, or stuffed in man-caves as a sign of machismo.
And you know what? I agree with them.
But only morally.
I have seen countless Grizzly Bears and they are an enduring icon of the American West. A signal of what once existed in this area we call America, before it was tarnished by settlement. The moment you see a Grizzly, whether it is the first time, or the 100th, you cannot help but to be in awe at it’s size, power, and the sheer fact that something that big, bad and dangerous lives in this country. Strictly speaking, look at one and see a killing machine. It evokes fear in you. It’s awesome.
So I personally, would never dream of killing a Grizzly Bear as I think shooting an animal that can rip you apart with a flick of the wrist with a rifle from a hundred yards out or so is a coward move. The people hunting Grizzly’s aren’t shooting them for food, and while they may make a rug out of it’s pelt, that’s not the reason they’re shooting them. As with all trophy hunting, I think it’s pointless and a sign of some sort of overcompensation to cover up other short-comings. I just don’t know how someone can look at something so marvelous and want to kill it. You aren’t “Taming the Beast” by killing the bear with a rifle, just like you aren’t taming the beast when you shoot a lion on a safari. You’re ambushing an animal with a weapon it has no defense to, from a distance where your safety is ensured. Hell, at least the dragon slayers in mythology lore used a sword or spear, thereby giving the beast a chance. Even bullfighters are risking something. By shooting a Grizzly Bear all you’re proving is that A) you have money and B) You have time.
As you can see, I have strong feelings about this topic but one can’t let those get in the way of the decision making of policy makers.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was put into existence to save the wildlife of America (i.e the Grizzly) from extinction. The fact that this magnificent creature is coming off the list should be a joyous occasion, as it shows that at the time being, extinction is no longer a threat. Let me repeat that. THE FACT THE GRIZZLY BEAR IS COMING OFF THE LIST SHOWS THAT IT IS NO LONGER THREATENED WITH EXTINCTION.
Now the question remains, and I do believe it’s a valid one, that there are factors that could change which would likely precipitate a population decline. First and foremost is the decline of White-Bark Pine trees in the area. Likely due to climate change, this sensitive species of tree is disappearing from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem at a rate not conducive to the trees future. These trees are imperative to Grizzly Bear health because their nuts are a huge source of fat and protein for bears readying for hibernation.
To correlate that issue though with hunting however is a fallacy to a dangerous degree, because while that issue will be pressing within the next century it is not at the moment. And I can guarantee you, the Grizzly Bear as a species will be monitored more closely than ANY other species. Scientists estimate that the Grizzly population is at it’s carrying capacity for the area allotted. Scientifically speaking, the rate of deaths from year to year from simply natural causes is going to vary substantially, and yet the species has recovered from dip after dip. Thousands of hunters aren’t headed out into the woods on Saturday to pop one of these things. ONE bear can be killed in the WHOLE state of Idaho. ONE. In Wyoming, a maximum of 21 bears can be killed.
This is where the fallacy takes place. In a species with a population sitting between 1,500-2,000 or so individuals, a population dip of 1% is going to have absolutely no effect on it’s future battle versus extinction. None. If all of the White-Bark Pine trees were to suddenly die, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news for the wildlife advocates, but the 21 bears hunted would not have saved the species assuming it were to go extinct (It wouldn’t, but we’re being the devils-advocate here).
Yellowstone National Park and Grand-Teton National Park have ~200ish Grizzly’s between them in any given year. Guess what. You can’t hunt in those parks. Hell, Montana has more bears that Wyoming and Idaho combined and they elected to not even have a hunting season. Not to mention the fact that the area of Montana with the most Grizzlies, they still remain threatened.
What I’m saying is this. The species is fine. It’s not going anywhere. Populations of megafauna like the Grizzly Bear don’t disappear over night. Like I said, scientists are going to be watching their population dynamics like a hawk, and if declines are seen, it can go right back on the list. So while I wholeheartedly disagree with the morals of hunting these incredible animals, as a scientist I simply can’t ignore the fact that with the current hunting regulations the species as a whole will remain without impact.