For two generations, it’s been illegal to trophy hunt grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975 seized control over grizzly management from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, invoking its authority under the Endangered Species Act.
BY TODD WILKINSON
Back then, the entire Greater Yellowstone grizzly population was estimated to number no more than 136, if not fewer. Most of those bruins were clustered in Yellowstone National Park. Many biologists feared that without emergency measures implemented to prevent conflict and stop humans from killing them—including the government meting out harsh penalties to poachers—they would disappear from the region just as wolves had.
“I never thought we would have the numbers and distribution of bears we have today,” Christopher Servheen, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s former grizzly bear recovery coordinator, told me. “I thought we would be lucky to have any grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.”
That’s how bleak it was and many say the turnaround orchestrated by Servheen and others ranks among the grandest achievements in wildlife management history.
Yet even now, less than 2,000 grizzlies roam the Lower 48, down from 50,000 that used to inhabit the West historically. Sizable, viable numbers— enough to ensure grizzlies persist for the foreseeable future—exist in just two regions south of Canada: the Greater Yellowstone and the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem that includes Glacier National Park and federal wilderness in northern Montana.
“Our culture, ever since Lewis and Clark came through in the early 1800s, has had such a distorted view of grizzlies. We treated them as expendable—as things we needed to eradicate,” said Joe Gutkoski, a former landscape architect for the U.S. Forest Service, who was 48 years old when grizzlies were delisted. “I think we’re smarter in that we know more about grizzlies than ever before. … We know they are not the bloodthirsty creatures they were portrayed to be by our ancestors. But I still wonder, are we wise enough to co-exist with them?”
In summer 2017, with grizzly numbers having rebounded in recent decades to somewhere around 700 in Greater Yellowstone, the Fish and Wildlife Service came full circle, relinquishing its control and giving management back to the states. Servheen says the Endangered Species Act proved it worked in moving the grizzly population out of the biological emergency room and into recovery.
Still, there remain several significant concerns clouding the outlook for grizzly survival, including the deepening impacts of climate change; bears dying in alleged incidents of human self-defense, often involving big game hunters; and rising human population pressure affecting the spaces bears need to persist.
But paramount, and indeed the major point of contention for hundreds of thousands of Americans who oppose giving states management authority, relates to hunting.
Should the most iconic population of wild bears on Earth again be targeted as animals killed for sport, trophies and thrill alone? All three states have expressed their desire to begin selling bear tags in the coming months or years.
Matt Hogan, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy regional director in Denver, told me it is not his agency’s prerogative to instruct the states on what to do going forward. He added that if the grizzly population falls below minimal numbers that the states agree to, the bear can be relisted and control again wrested away.
“Our culture, ever since Lewis and Clark came through in the early 1800s, has had such a distorted view of grizzlies. We treated them as expendable—as things we needed to eradicate.”
Gutkoski is a living legend to those who savor Montana’s wild backcountry. A solitary wanderer, his hardiness has earned him comparisons to a wolverine. Today, after seven decades of exploration, Gutkoski’s name appears in the summit registers of peaks scattered throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and points well beyond.
He served in the Navy during World War II and following school at Penn State University, was hired as the first landscape architect in the history of the U.S. Forest Service’s flagship Northern Region in Missoula.
In 1964, Gutkoski transferred to Bozeman and completed his 32-year tenure of civil service fighting misguided timber sales and attempts to cover mountainsides with mazes of logging roads. He’s also been a river protector, a wilderness crusader and a catalyst in pushing to re-establish free-ranging bison herds on the high plains.
But of all his passions, none comes close to matching his zealous enthusiasm for stalking big game animals in the fall. Since the late 1940s, Gutkoski has cut the tracks of every major mammal in the Northern Rockies, including mountain lions, wolves, imperiled Canada lynx and wolverine. He’s taken black bears with his rifle, cooking them as roasts for supper.
He has never eaten grizzly; the mere thought causes him to recoil. Indeed, for most hunters, grizzlies have never been thought of as animals killed for sustenance; bringing down a Great Bear has always been treated instead as the ultimate wildlife trophy.
Gutkoski, now 90, is among the few living Montanans who, when they purchased elk tags as young men, were also told they could take a grizzly, no questions asked. Reflecting on a couple of attempts to shoot an elusive massive boar in the South Fork of the Flathead River drainage, Gutkoski offers this solemn confession: “I’m glad I failed.”
Had he succeeded, “driven by my personal ego in downing a grizzly for nothing more than the thrill of the chase,” Gutkoski says, he’d feel ashamed today.
“We have some very large bears here, which would make for commendable trophies. It would be nice to be able to whack one that’s causing problems.”
Few issues in modern wildlife conservation have stirred raw emotion and vehement disagreement over what the ethical and legal objectives should be in rescuing a high-profile animal from the brink of regional annihilation.
Nowhere in the Endangered Species Act does it state that animals brought back from near oblivion in a given location will or will not be hunted once restored. For example, Americans do not legally hunt bald eagles for sport, nor are peregrine falcons classified as game birds available for wing shooting, even though they could make intriguing trophies mounted on a wall.
Passions are even higher because today no species is more synonymous with Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks than Ursus arctos horribilis.
Wildlife watching is one of the ecosystem’s key attractions, appealing to people from around the world. Between Yellowstone and Grand Teton alone, more than $1 billion is generated annually through nature tourism, according to Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics. Seeing a grizzly ranks even higher on visitor wish lists, according to one survey, than witnessing an eruption of Old Faithful Geyser.
In Jackson, Wyoming, a 22-year-old bruin given the identity Grizzly 399 by researchers, is said to be the most famous mother bear in the world. She spends most of her time within the environs of Grand Teton National Park but could be in peril if Wyoming commences grizzly hunting in the adjacent national forest where she dens.
Global outrage erupted over the trophy killing of Cecil the African lion in 2015, downed by an American bow hunter after the big cat was lured out of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. The possibility of something similar happening to beloved Yellowstone and Grand Teton grizzlies is, for many, unthinkable.
The bulk of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem exists in Wyoming and that state has aggressively noted that if and when hunting commences again, it will exploit its authority to generate revenue off bear licenses. The state plans to charge out-of-state hunters $6,000 for a grizzly tag and $600 for Wyoming residents.
Scott Weber, a member of an organization called Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, put up a billboard in his town in 2016 at the height of summer tourist season showing a camouflage-clad hunter posed next to a dead grizzly. He told the local Cody Enterprise newspaper, “The greatest trophy in the Lower 48 is a male grizzly. Now you won’t have to go to Alaska to get a grizzly.”
During an interview with the Jackson Hole News & Guide, another Wyoming outfitter named Paul Gilroy, a Safari Club member who lives near Wilson, Wyoming, said he sees a commercial opportunity for his business. “It would be a very popular hunt and easily advertised and easily booked. We have some very large bears here, which would make for commendable trophies,” Gilroy said. “It would be nice to be able to whack one that’s causing problems.”
“If we want to make sure hunting is embraced for future generations and not have society turn against it, then we need to respect the millions of people who value grizzlies and not talk about the animals with an attitude of defiance or hostility like ‘Let’s just go shoot the bastards.'”
Randy Newberg of Bozeman is an international celebrity in hunting circles. He is host of the Sportsman Channel’s Fresh Tracks With Randy Newberg and also oversees one of the most popular web podcasts devoted to public-lands hunting in America.
Years ago, Newberg killed a grizzly in Alaska, part of a dream hunt he took with his 82-year-old grandfather. “It was the thrill of a lifetime,” he says. Having done it once, he told me he has no compelling need to repeat it again.
Almost two decades ago, he served on a blue-ribbon panel of citizens in the Greater Yellowstone that examined whether the scientific goals used to gauge bear recovery had been met. He concluded that they had.
Newberg supported the measure to remove grizzlies from federal protection in 2017, just as he had in 2007 when the Greater Yellowstone population was temporarily delisted from safeguarding under the Endangered Species Act. But lawsuits from environmental groups stalled delisting for a decade.
Newberg is torn when pondering where hunts should occur—on the far outlying edges of the ecosystem or closer to the national parks where there are higher concentrations of bears and people and thus likely more conflict. The states have said they first intend to target “problem bears”—for example, those that get into conflict with livestock, chronically wander into communities or get into trash.
Any hunts, if they target grizzlies that would otherwise be destroyed, relocated or sent to zoos, need to be carefully orchestrated and involve only highly skilled and qualified hunters, guides and close involvement with wardens and biologists on the ground, Newberg says.
Newberg worries about bear hunting being captured on camera and posted on social media. It would create a firestorm. He witnessed the black eye Montana incurred when Yellowstone bison were gunned down in the snow right along the park border.
Should a popular bear get accidentally killed, should a bruin get wounded and die with agony, should a female grizzly be slain because a hunter mistook her for a male, it would be a public relations nightmare that would have internationally negative consequences for the image of hunting, he says.
“As someone concerned about hunting and its positive role in society, I am deeply concerned that hunting of grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone could make the backlash caused by Cecil the lion look like a 1.0 on the Richter scale,” he said. “The moment somebody shoots a bear like Grizzly 399, by accident, out of spite or stupidity, this will turn into a disaster for the hunting community of an order of magnitude like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.”
He offers an advisement to fellow hunters. “If we want to make sure hunting is embraced for future generations and not have society turn against it, then we need to respect the millions of people who value grizzlies and not talk about the animals with an attitude of defiance or hostility like ‘Let’s just go shoot the bastards.’”
Some claim that if grizzlies aren’t allowed to be hunted, there will be more poaching. A counterargument is that poachers who break the law need to receive harsh sentences. There is fear among conservationists that the states will be lenient if more bears start dying due to claims of hunter self-defense.
“Grizzlies are America’s version of the tiger and lion, and showing the rest of the world how species can be ushered forward through this century with compassion and stewardship gives hope that it can be done in other areas.”
From his home in Kelly, Wyoming, Ted Kerasote has clear views looking west toward the breathtaking Teton Range. Behind him is the Bridger-Teton National Forest, an area where he has hunted for decades. Grizzlies and wolves amble through his backyard and he routinely finds fresh tracks. When he moved permanently to Jackson Hole in 1986, grizzlies were incredibly rare and wolves were absent from Greater Yellowstone.
Kerasote is, in his own way, legendary. For many years, he wrote a couple of widely read columns for Sports Afield magazine and he is author of the acclaimed book, Bloodties: Nature, Culture and the Hunt. Like Gutkoski and Newberg, he is a passionate defender of hunting when it is done to put meat on the table.
“People try to tell me that if I’m not in favor of killing grizzlies, then I’m anti-hunting. I’ve been called that even though I’ve shot more elk than those people who are making the claim,” he said. “There’s an atmosphere of tremendous polarization in this country. It’s based on the belief that unless you are wholeheartedly with us, you are against us. Those who say we need to kill grizzlies for fun are on the wrong side of history. And they’re not doing the cause of hunting any favors.”
The states can’t argue that hunting is an essential management tool because it isn’t, Kerasote says. Grizzlies have been stewarded successfully in Greater Yellowstone without hunting for four decades. Further, they can’t claim that revenues generated through the sale of bear licenses will fix funding woes. Wyoming is in a severe budget crisis because of falling revenues from declining coal markets.
“Wyoming or Montana or Idaho are not going to maneuver their way through larger fiscal crises on the backs of dead bears,” he notes. “You can’t kill that many bears through hunting, on top of the number already dying through a variety of causes, and not have a negative impact on the bear population.”
The deaths of a relatively small number of breeding female grizzlies can, over time, mean the difference between a rising or falling population. States say they won’t target female bears in sport hunts.
Kerasote has traveled around the world and he has heard predictions that by the middle of this century, many large carnivores, including tigers in India and lions in Africa, could be rendered extinct in the wild. Given the trend- lines of the global human population rising from 7 billion to 10 billion by mid century, the prospects are not good for species that need big spaces and human tolerance.
Grizzlies are America’s version of the tiger and lion, and showing the rest of the world how species can be ushered forward through this century with compassion and stewardship gives hope that it can be done in other areas, Kerasote says.
“I honestly don’t understand why Wyoming keeps insisting that grizzlies need to be hunted. In practical terms, there’s just no good reason other than appeasing a few people who just want the thrill of saying they killed a Greater Yellowstone bear,” he adds. “To pander to that kind of mentality just makes the state look puerile. Is that the image that Wyoming really wants to project to the rest of the world?”
The values of the West have shifted markedly since 1975 when grizzlies were given federal protection. “There are many people who moved here who think that having bears is pretty cool. There is a large wild bear constituency that did not exist generations ago,” Kerasote said.
“The moment somebody shoots a bear like Grizzly 399, by accident, out of spite or stupidity, this will turn into a disaster for the hunting community of an order of magnitude like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.”
Aldo Leopold, in his age-old classic, A Sand County Almanac, writes about how the spirit of wildness left a mountain called Escudilla in the American Southwest after the last grizzly was slain by a trapper enlisted to protect livestock interests. In gazing at that place, pondering the mere existence value of grizzlies, he observed:
“There was, in fact, only one place from which you did not see Escudilla on the skyline: that was the top of Escudilla itself. … No one ever saw the old bear, but in the muddy springs about the base of the cliffs you saw his incredible tracks. Seeing them made even the most hard-bitten cowboys aware of bear. … We spoke harshly of the Spaniards who, in their zeal for gold and converts, had needlessly extinguished the native Indians. It did not occur to us that we, too, were the captains of an invasion too sure of its own righteousness. Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of bear. It’s only a mountain now.”
Joe Gutkoski says that Greater Yellowstone is like a modern manifestation of Escudilla. “You don’t need to possess an individual grizzly in order to know and appreciate its power,” he says. “You don’t need to claim its life for your own one-time personal benefit. I’ve run into grizzlies on hunts in the Gallatins and I’ve had profound moments of satisfaction seeing them and knowing they are there and may be there next time. They make me feel more alert and when you are more alert you feel more alive.”
To him, no creature distills the essence of wildness more than a griz. “In this day and age, we are trying to hold onto that raw edge of nature as it slips away from us. Why would you want to kill an animal that is the emblem of the very thing we are trying to save?”
He believes the relationship between people and apex predators has come around full circle and it’s time to chart a different course going forward.
Newberg, who has an audience of millions, doesn’t disagree with Gutkoski’s assessment.
“The grizzly is unique. States should take a lot of pride in the fact they’ve played a role in recovery,” Newberg said. “But grizzlies need to be treated like the special species they are, whether we manage them for hunting or not hunting. If we mess this up, then shame on us. The public will never forgive us if we do.”
Starting his career as a violent crime reporter in Chicago, Todd Wilkinson has been a Montana-based national environmental journalist for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Washington Post. In 2016, the National Newspaper Association named Wilkinson’s “The New West” the country’s best serious column for small-town papers. He is also the author of Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.