Paul Miller just got back from a 12-day hunting trip outside of Cody with some friends.
"Yeah, we went on a mountain goat and bighorn sheep hunt. One guy drew both tags and we archery hunted it for a couple of days, then we hunted sheep with a rifle,” Miller said.
On the trip, he saw 15 grizzly bears. Miller said he's excited at the possibility of one day soon being able to hunt a bear. Conversations about trophy hunting revived last month when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the grizzly from the endangered species list.
Miller is one of many in town who agrees it’s about time the animal be put under state management.
“When you can go into one drainage and you don’t travel more than two or three miles each way and you can find 15 grizzly bears, I think it’s time to manage them a little better.” Miller said, "I mean they’re just thick and you’re just asking for people to get hurt.”
The grizzly bear was listed as an endangered species in 1975. The controversy over its listing started closer to 2003, though, when the population surpassed the recovery criteria set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Greater Yellowstone Grizzly has already been de-listed once, in 2007, but federal protections were restored following a lawsuit that ended in 2009.
Under federal management, it's harder to put down problem bears. Residents say there's an increasing number of bears getting closer to town. Hunting is prohibited. For many, like Lee Livingston, a Park County Commissioner and outfitter, there’s also the simple, gut reaction.
“It’s our wildlife; it’s within Wyoming’s boundaries. We have a great team here that knows how to manage it and doesn’t need to have big brother looking over their shoulder,” Livingston said.
Livingston said he thinks this battle is still far from being over.
“I say a lot of folks are still holding their breath… been there, done it, seen it, we’re not going to say it's done until it's done,” he said.
This month, more than ten groups have filed or joined lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arguing the decision to remove the grizzly from the endangered species list is premature and could lead to their decline. Those include Sierra Club, the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and the Western Watersheds Project. Livingston, obviously, opposes the litigation.
“They’re doing well and now they’re grasping at straws to litigate under anything they can find.” Livingston said, “and the latest round of litigation, I think, shows that.”
Litigants say that there’s been a troubling drop in the Yellowstone bear's population recently — with more than 60 bears dying between 2014 and 2016. With dwindling food sources, they argue it’s not the time to take away protections, let alone allow hunting to begin.
Chuck Neal, a long-time Cody resident, said he's disappointed by those who want to allow hunting, especially on the outskirts of grizzly habitat.
“That’s exactly the wrong attitude and will guarantee to stop recovery in its tracks,” Neal said.
He added the only way to properly recover the grizzly is to allow them to move and settle between different habitats, like in Glacier National Park. Neal said that means bears on the periphery of Yellowstone are the most valuable, “because they are the ones pioneering out, trying to recolonize historically occupied, contiguous habitat."
Neal said federal regulation has granted grizzlies the safety to make a slow and steady rebound, but the work isn’t done.
“It’s snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory because we’re getting close, we’re not there.” Neal said, “We’re getting close and we’re going to guarantee it’s never going to take place.”
Dr. Charles Preston, Director of the Draper Natural History Museum, has lived in Cody for 19 years and has watched the controversy unfold. He said the change shouldn’t be seen as a death sentence or a miracle, but as an opportunity.
“This is the end of one chapter of long-term protection and recovery that we should be celebrating and it's the beginning of another chapter. And that chapter is management and conservation of grizzly bears,” Preston said.
As for the lawsuits, it is possible they could stop the delisting of the grizzly bear. But the case will likely take many more years to resolve.