A year ago, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took note that grizzly bears have made a comeback in the region around Yellowstone National Park, thanks to the protections of the Endangered Species Act.
Since 1975, he said, the bears’ numbers have risen from 136 to about 700.
“This 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,” Zinke said. “As a Montanan, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together.
He’s come up with the appropriate way to commemorate the rescue of these grizzlies: killing some. Zinke removed them from the threatened list, which means hunting of the beasts may proceed.
As it happens, Montana and Idaho have chosen not to take the invitation. But last month, the Wyoming Fish and Game Commission voted to let hunters shoot as many as 22 grizzlies in the area east of the park.
You may wonder what Zinke has against bears. Shortly after taking over at Interior, he had a stuffed grizzly delivered for installation in his office. He has also proposed to allow hunters on public lands in Alaska to go after bears using bait and dogs, to kill bears and their cubs hibernating in dens and to shoot caribou from motorboats.
Trophy hunting of bears doesn’t really fit with contemporary attitudes about the value of wildlife. Last year, the Canadian province of British Columbia, home to some 15,000 grizzlies, outlawed hunting them for trophies. Polls indicate most Americans generally oppose hunting for mere sport.
But Zinke runs with a different crowd. The advisory board he appointed to revise rules on importing elephant, lion and rhinoceros trophies from Africa includes, as the Associated Press reported, “celebrity hunting guides, representatives from rifle and bow manufacturers, and wealthy sportspeople who boast of bagging the coveted “Big Five” — elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo.”
It added, “Most are high-profile members of Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, groups that have sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the list of countries from which trophy kills can be legally imported.”
The Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have sued Interior over the new rules, arguing that it failed to take account of the “catastrophic food crisis” facing grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, caused by “habitat loss, climate change, drought, invasive species and other anthropogenic and natural causes.”
The suit says this crisis has contributed to a high human-caused mortality rate among the bears because they have had to range farther in search of food and are killed by vehicles, poachers and ranchers protecting livestock. Some experts say that the bears’ numbers have already started to shrink. Given the serious pressures on these beasts, this is no time to strip them of protection and put them literally in the crosshairs of sport hunters.
It also stands to damage the vital tourism industry of the region. Visitors who come in hopes of seeing a grizzly are more likely to be disappointed if hunting is allowed — partly because there will be fewer bears and partly because the surviving ones will be far more wary of humans.
Grizzly bears still need protection from humans, who are a far greater danger to them than they are to people. Zinke’s policy treats them as a commodity of value mainly to kill and display. Sensible and humane coexistence is a better approach. As the more intelligent species, we have a responsibility to find ways to advance that goal.
Image: A grizzly bear looks up from foraging, in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska on Aug. 31, 2015. (Becky Bohrer / AP)