Sometime this fall, if a judge allows it, an Idaho resident will nudge their truck up a rutted road in search of high ground from which to spot, stalk, and shoot a grizzly bear. For days, the hunter will glass the hillsides, alert for pale fur in dark timber. Abandoning the car, the hunter will follow plate-sized tracks and huckleberry scat, eventually creeping close enough to identify the blocky muzzle of an adult male. Then the hunter will lift their rifle—a .375 H&H, maybe—and attempt to put a bullet through the animal’s shoulders or lungs. Their prize will be one of the first grizzly bears legally hunted in the lower 48 since 1974.
Whether such a scene will actually transpire remains uncertain. On August 30, in response to six lawsuits filed by a coalition of environmental groups and Native tribes, U.S. District of Montana Judge Dana Christensen placed a 14-day block on proposed grizzly hunts in Wyoming and Idaho while he considers whether the region’s bears should remain protected by the Endangered Species Act. On September 13, he granted a second 14-day block. While Wyoming’s grizzly season has attracted national headlines and opprobrium from the likes of Jane Goodall, its neighboring state’s hunt has flown under the radar. One telling metric: “Wyoming grizzly hunt” has generated nearly twice as much Google interest as “Idaho grizzly hunt.”
There’s a good reason for that disparity: Wyoming issued 22 grizzly tags; Idaho granted just one. Yet despite its far smaller grizzly population, the Gem State plays an outsize role in the future of Ursos arctos horribilis and the controversy over the bear’s management. Central Idaho boasts some of the Northern Rockies’ wildest blocks of public land, in particular the 1.3 million–acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the adjacent 2.3 million–acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Although scientists estimate that the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem could support as many as 600 bruins, it’s the only official grizzly recovery area currently devoid of bears. Conservationists envision the state someday serving as a vast corridor connecting the West’s fragmented grizzlies—a junction some call “the holy grail of Rockies recovery.”
“The key to long-term grizzly recovery is providing the opportunity to expand and connect, and in that sense, Idaho is critical,” says Dan Ritzman, director of lands, water, and wildlife for the Sierra Club. “The numbers are small enough [in Idaho] that each individual bear can make a difference.”
The story of this year’s grizzly hunt begins in 1975, when the lower 48’s bears, eradicated from 98 percent of their range, finally received protection under the Endangered Species Act. In and around Yellowstone National Park, which held the most isolated concentration of bears, the population had fallen to 136 lonely grizzlies. Spurred by the listing, government managers set out to reduce the attractants that were luring bears into fatal conflicts with people, installing bear-proof garbage cans, compelling backpackers to hang their food, and closing nearby grazing allotments.
The bears bounced back. From 2002 to 2014, the population within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which sprawls across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, leveled off at around 674. That figure became the government’s target for a healthy population. By 2017, an estimated 718 grizzlies roamed the region, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rescind federal protection.
Delisting, crucially, shifted the onus of grizzly management from the feds to the states. Bears within Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks remained under National Park Service jurisdiction, but grizzlies that drifted beyond those boundaries became wards of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. In practice, that meant the bears could be hunted.
Anticipating the delisting in 2016, the three states signed a deal divvying up the potential harvest: The more bear habitat you have, the more bears you can kill. More than half—58 percent—of the Yellowstone population’s core range falls in Wyoming, 34 percent in Montana, and 8 percent in Idaho. The states also concocted a formula to determine how many bears could die each year without crashing the core population. (Beyond Yellowstone National Park, the deal allows states to permit as many kills as they want, leading some distraught biologists to dub those outer lands the “slaughter zone.”)
In 2018, the formula allocated Wyoming’s hunters ten Yellowstone bears, Montana six, and Idaho a single grizzly. Deciding whether to exercise those newfound hunting rights required a more complex political calculus. Montana, which skews purpler than its neighbors, skipped its chance at a grizzly season to further study the hunt’s impacts. Wyoming, to no one’s surprise, went gung ho by granting 22 tags: its ten allotted grizzlies within the Yellowstone core, along with 12 more in the fringe beyond.
Idaho, which shares more cultural DNA with Wyoming, also opted to hunt its quota, announcing in April that it would select one lucky sportsperson via lottery. The contest drew 1,272 applicants who paid $16.75 apiece for their entries, reaping $21,000 for the state. On July 20, Idaho drew its unidentified lottery winner, a Boise-area resident.
It is no exaggeration to say that delisting grizzly bears, and permitting hunting them, has proved to be among the most controversial wildlife actions in American history. Some within the sportsman wing of the conservation movement welcome the return to state rule. “Yellowstone grizzly bears are probably the most studied animals on the planet, and we feel they can come off the list and the states can manage them,” says Blake Henning, chief conservation officer of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which filed a brief supporting delisting. State agencies, Henning argues, are “closer to the ground” than their federal counterparts. They’re also closer to hunters: As per the North American Wildlife Model, states rely on hunting and fishing license sales and gear taxes to support research that guides conservation. Whether wildlife agencies are as science-guided as they claim to be is an open question, but there’s no doubt that, as Henning puts it, a lot of money from hunters’ pockets “has gone into study and habitat acquisition for bears.”
Many state officials also consider hunting to be a tool for population control. “The next step in the recovery of grizzly bears is actually having some managed harvest on them,” says Toby Boudreau, assistant chief of wildlife for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. By hunting some of what Boudreau calls the “harvestable surplus” beyond the population target of 674, the states hope to limit human-bruin conflicts. (Environmentalists counter that hunting kills innocent bears at random, rather than surgically removing troublemakers.) Should the population drop below 600, the hunts will cease until bears bounce back.
The primary argument against delisting, on the other hand, is simple: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is already a perilous place to be a grizzly bear. Fifty-six known grizzlies died in 2017, up to 49 of them killed by humans—three times more than in 2014. Bears were shot by elk hunters in self-defense, mowed down by motorists, and euthanized for preying on cattle.
Tim Preso, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office, argues the escalating body count is no coincidence. As whitebark pine has succumbed to climate-fueled beetle epidemics, depriving grizzlies of nutritious pine nuts, bears have shifted their diets to meat, especially elk. Supporters of delisting claim this flexibility makes grizzlies resilient; Preso counters that the quest for calories is leading bears into clashes over cows and elk carcasses. Forty-two bears have died or are suspected to have died so far in 2018—at least 26 at human hands.
“The government chose to declare the population recovered at a time of record-high human-caused grizzly mortality,” Preso says. “Now we’re proposing to add 23 more hunting mortalities on top of that.”
Those deaths, conservationists argue, are especially troubling given the splintered geography of the West’s grizzlies. Bears in the lower 48 persist in a scattered archipelago, wild islands within a sea of roads, towns, and farms. Bridging those islands—allowing Yellowstone grizzlies to mingle with their cousins from Glacier National Park, Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, and Northern Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains—is the quixotic goal of bear conservation, the only way to ensure isolated populations don’t blink out. Hunting bears as they disperse out of Yellowstone, wrote 73 scientists in an April letter to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, could “prevent the achievement of meaningful viability.”
Idaho contains only 1 percent of Yellowstone National Park, but it, too, plays a pivotal role in the dream of pan-Rockies recovery. The Fish and Wildlife Service came within a whisker of reintroducing bears to the Bitterroot in 2000, only to see its plans scuttled by then-governor Dirk Kempthorne, who infamously opposed “massive, flesh-eating carnivores” in his state. Then, in 2016, a brave Yellowstone grizzly ventured into Montana’s Upper Big Hole country, a gateway to the Bitterroots. There have been no confirmed sightings of grizzlies in the area since, but their natural return could allow central Idaho to someday serve as a corridor allowing southbound Selkirk bears to link up with grizzlies moving west from Yellowstone and Glacier in Idaho’s enormous wilderness areas.
The Elk Foundation’s Blake Henning doubts that hunting a single Idaho grizzly will affect long-term connectivity. But by permitting intensive hunting in the fringe zone, says Erin Edge, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife, Wyoming has already made clear that it intends to limit grizzlies’ spread. Edge fears that Idaho will likewise use its hunt to prevent future dispersal.
“What we’ve seen in the past is that Idaho has been resistant to grizzly bear occupancy” beyond the core Yellowstone range, Edge says. As grizzlies head west, she adds, “I’d be highly concerned that the pressure would be on preventing bears from moving into other places in Idaho.”
If Yellowstone’s grizzlies indeed avoid the hunt, the importance of connecting populations may well prove decisive. During the August 30 hearing at which he placed a two-week restraining order on hunting, Judge Christensen “questioned whether the government had adequately considered how delisting Yellowstone grizzlies could affect its ability to link up with other bears,” reported the Washington Post.
“To me, it seems a fundamental concept,” the judge said during the hearing, “and that’s the issue of connectivity.”
Whatever your values, the Yellowstone grizzly comeback presents an unprecedented opportunity. To Preso, it’s a chance to push the envelope by returning bears to lands they haven’t trod in decades; to Fish and Game’s Toby Boudreau, it’s a thrilling season for his state’s sportsmen. If Idaho’s first grizzly hunter gets a legal green light, though, his success is far from a fait accompli. Hunting depends as much on happenstance as skill. Says Boudreau, “It doesn’t take a very big bush to hide a bear.”