The conflict over whether Yellowstone grizzly bears should be off or on Endangered Species Act protections has been an ongoing controversy for years. Even after a judge put grizzlies back under federal protections this Fall, the debate continues. Those in favor of the judge's decision and those against are suspicious of each other's motives.
In the most recent fight, the possibility of the first grizzly hunting season in over 40 years in Wyoming and Idaho became the focal point for a number of environmental groups who said that a move for an immediate hunt proves the state and federal governmentdon't want to protect the bears but wipe them out as quickly as possible. Connie Wilbert, the Wyoming chapter director of Sierra Club, said that would be devastating to the ecosystem.
"When we protect those big, highly visible species, we are protecting everything else under it," she said.
Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, agreed. She said grizzlies are one of the slowest reproducing mammals, and it takes a female bear ten years to be replaced.
"When you're looking at the intentional killing of over a dozen female bears…that's why we feel like there could be catastrophic implications that could really dramatically impact the grizzly bear population," said Santarsiere.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has acknowledged that killing females is a concern, and they are trying to address that issue with the hunting regulations. Hunters like Bob Wharff, the president of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said they are sensitive to harming the species.
"Our organization has never called for the complete annihilation of the species," he said. "We've always said it needs to be managed. We're all about managing for sustainability because we want it to be here for future generations."
In other words, Wharff said hunters will protect the bears.
"The people that don't hunt, I don't think they get that to me the safest species are the ones that we hunt. The ones that we don't hunt are the ones, in my mind, they're more susceptible to face problems," said Wharff.
Wharff said the point is grizzly numbers are getting too big and management is needed because it's getting dangerous.
"We've had at least one death that I'm aware of. Several maulings," said Wharff. "All of those things factor into perhaps delisting."
Brian Nesvik, the Chief Game Warden of Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the state knows best how to handle conflicts. It's normal for them to deal with five to six conflicts at the same time.
"That's not out of the norm. Our folks are experienced and have learned what works best and is most efficient," he said.
They handle conflicts on a case by case basis, and that doesn't always involve killing the bear, many times it comes to relocation. Both sides, also, accuse the other of trying to make money off the grizzlies through various fundraising mechanisms or even license fees.
Mollie Marsh-Heine, the vice president of development with Earthjustice, said it helps but it certainly doesn't generate big bucks. She said the grizzly is similar to other species that are well known.
"Like wolverines or the manatee - other really threatened species that tends to garner a certain type of supporter that is very wildlife focused," she said.
The day the grizzly delisting case was heard in court, Earthjustice sent out an email appeal to supporters to help protect grizzly bears. The appeal itself generated $47,000. The group's revenue is about $7 million. Grizzly bears helped fundraise .06 percent.
And the Wyoming Game and Fish Department would only make $56,000 at most from grizzly licenses, which is just .07 percent of its budget.
It ultimately comes down to a trust and philosophical issue over how grizzlies should be managed. Both sides claim they want the grizzly bear to be recovered but neither trusts the other side's approach.
Sportsmen and women and the state are concerned about human and health issues, but environmental groups are more concerned about the fate of the bear. Where this ends up is anybody's guess.