The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission set boundaries Tuesday for where grizzly bears can roam in the state in hopes of ending special federal protections and giving Wyoming, Montana and Idaho more control over the bears.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering removing grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protection, citing steadily growing populations and adequate protections for the bear and its habitat in the Yellowstone National Park area.
Each of the three states had to develop a federally approved management plan to keep the bear population stable.
"Wyoming has done what the Fish and Wildlife required it in order to get the bear delisted," commissioner Clark Allan said before the panel unanimously approved the boundaries.
Commissioners, however, approved another resolution soon after giving them the authority to reconsider their action early next year if the federal government has not started delisting the grizzly by Dec. 31.
'We want to stabilize the numbers'
An estimated 600 grizzly bears roam the Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The bear has been listed as threatened for 20 years while efforts were made to help its numbers grow.
"Wyoming is at that point where we want to stabilize the numbers," said John Emmerich, assistant chief of the wildlife division with the state Game and Fish Department.
Setting specific boundaries for where the bear can roam is part of the overall plan to manage grizzly numbers. Wyoming's management plan would allow grizzly bear hunting to control the population if needed.
"It may not work, but it won't be because we didn't give it our very best shot," commissioner Bill Williams said.
Criticism of boundaries
The boundary lines drew some criticism from residents, outfitters and ranchers who live in and around the boundaries and from some conservationists.
Residents said they fear bear attacks, while outfitters lamented the loss of business and ranchers complained the bears will harass and kill livestock.
"To put them in areas where they're not wanted, I think, is illegal," said Dave Vaughan, a representative for farmers in the Lander area.
"These are huge predators who will eat you," Jackson outfitter Paul Gilroy said.
But Heidi Godwin of the Sierra Club said grizzlies need large expanses of land to thrive. She advocated allowing them to move in to habitat that wasn't included in the boundaries.
"We are their biggest stumbling block to recovery," she said.
Terry Rasmussen of the Wyoming Outdoor Council said grizzlies should be given precedent over other uses of public lands.
"If we want grizzly bears to be around for future generations, this may be a sacrifice we are required to make," she said.
Commissioners concluded they had no choice but to approve the boundaries to proceed with delisting. Not doing that would strip them of control over bear numbers and where they roam, they reasoned.
"There's no middle ground here, either we move forward or we don't," Allan said.
Under Wyoming's plan, primary habitat for grizzlies would lie in Yellowstone and the surrounding national forests and wilderness areas. The bears would be allowed to move into most adjacent U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service areas within 50 to 100 miles of the park, where there are few people and other potential conflicts. That would include areas north of the Snake River Canyon and the Hoback River in western Wyoming and a portion of the Wind River Range west of Lander.
Outside the parks, controlled hunting, relocation and other means would be allowed to keep bear populations stable and away from populated areas.