The most common cause of grizzly bear deaths in Grand Teton is collisions with vehicles, not hunter self-defense shootings.
The Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project have filed a lawsuit against officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. The suit centers on the park service decision to deem acceptable up to four potential grizzly bear deaths over the next seven years in connection with the park's annual elk reduction hunt.
What the FWS and NPS decision translates to is this: They have determined that, over the next seven years, it is possible that grizzly bears and elk hunters may have encounters that could result in four bears being killed, and that those four deaths are acceptable in the context of the annual elk reduction hunts.
The Sierra Club and WWP disagree with that assessment, and claim that four grizzly bear deaths over that seven year period are not only unacceptable, but are also preventable by changing current practices and projects in the park.
Most notably, the environmental groups point to the the Elk Reduction Program as a primary source of conflict between bears and humans.
The groups claim that the reduction hunt is only in place because of "a misguided program of winter elk feeding by FWS on the nearby Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge. That feeding program artificially inflates the local elk population such that the extraordinary step of hunting wildlife within a national park has been deemed necessary to control the population."
With more elk hunters in the park and more bears concentrated in smaller areas, the chances of bear-human encounters have increased.
But, since the Grand Teton Park's current boundary lines were determined in 1950, only one bear-human interaction has occurred that resulted in the death of a bear.
That incident took place in 2012 when three hunters were forced to kill a charging grizzly. The incident initiated a re-evaluation of the bear-human situation in the context of additional factors like the elk hunt and increasing distribution and density of the grizzly bears.
The 2012 incident is interesting. The three hunters were hiking out from their elk hunt when a 534-pound grizzly charged them from 42 feet away. One of the hunters immediately hit the bear with bear spray and the other two shot and killed the bear at 32 feet into its charge, only ten feet from their position.
The entire incident lasted less than 10 seconds. An investigation of the scene concluded that the bear had an elk carcass cached nearby and that the men acted appropriately and were justified in killing the bear.
Grand Teton Park officials indicate in their investigation press release; "In light of this incident involving the fatal shooting of a grizzly bear-the first ever recorded in Grand Teton National Park-managers are reviewing steps that might be taken to reduce such incidents in the future."
Bonnie Rice, of Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign, suggested, "Allowing four additional grizzly bears - a threatened species - to be killed in one our nation's most iconic national parks, without even requiring significant measures to reduce conflicts between people and bears, is inexcusable. The Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly increased the number of grizzly bears that can be killed, without looking at the broader impact on grizzly recovery in the region."
Jonathan Ratner of Western Watersheds Project also said in a release, "They (FWS) have been handing out permits for the killing of grizzly bears like candy, but they have conveniently forgotten to add up all of the take they have authorized."
Given the inflammatory and contradictory nature of such comments, compared with those released by FWS and Grand Teton Park, it seems arguable that the Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project have the protection of grizzly bears as their foremost agenda. It could be argued that the primary mission of these groups is to simply continue their anti-hunting agendas.
Rice claims that FWS is essentially ignoring "measures to reduce conflicts between people and bears," while Grand Teton officials indicate that they are in fact "reviewing steps that might be taken to reduce such incidents in the future."
Ratner suggests that FWS promotes grizzly bear killing as it might view "giving away candy," and yet, not a single bear death by a hunter had occurred in Grand Teton Park for 62 years, and the maximum justifiable (self-defense) bear shootings allowed until 2022 is only four bears. That hardly seems akin to giving permits away as candy.
One also wonders whether these groups would find any bear shooting, such as that which occurred in 2012, and was judged to be a justifiable case of self-defense, "inexcusable."
Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs confirmed, "Park managers and staff take the loss of a single grizzly bear quite seriously, and we will continue to protect grizzlies in every way possible, including providing additional safety warnings for drivers or proper food storage alerts for campers, as well as implementing appropriate changes to management of the elk reduction program when necessary."
It might be appropriate to take Skaggs and the park service at their word, as up to now only a single bear has been killed by hunters in the last 65 years.