The annual Grand Teton National Park Elk Reduction Hunt has been the subject of controversy for a number of years now, but following the death of a male grizzly along the Snake River, tensions began to escalate between a growing movement of people opposing the hunt, and the park itself.
The hunt has become something of a joke to those who oppose it. They certainly have credence given that many "hunters" can be seen parked along the roadsides south of Blacktail Butte as they sit in their cars with the heater on waiting for elk to wander by, then fire at will as soon as a small herd passes through. Along these lines, I tend to agree with the opposition to the hunt. This behavior is in no way representative of actual hunting. In this case, they needn’t even bring their orange clothing with them since it’s not necessary. If, however, you pack up supplies, and go spend some time in the backcountry tracking and searching for an elk in freezing temperatures, then you’ve earned elk meat for the winter. That is the kind of hunting that has ingrained itself as traditional and respected over the centuries in this country.
With that being said however, I do feel that conducting an elk reduction hunt within a national park is blatant hypocrisy. It completely defies the mission statement of the National Park Service, and given the lackadaisical methods used by many "hunters" inside of the park, only leads one to believe that at one point, a catalyst will show up for a change. Enter a male grizzly bear on a carcass shot dead by a small group of hunters along the Snake River, just north of Moose, Wyoming. Questions regarding this case are still awaiting answers. Bear spray is roughly 100% effective against charging bears, so if they fired it, why wasn’t it effective this time? What was the relationship between the hunters and the bear before it charged? Was it provoked at all? Many more questions are awaiting answers, but some of them may never come out.
As a result of the incident, local park enthusiasts began a petition to permanently end the elk reduction hunt within Grand Teton National Park. While I support an end to this hunt, this knee-jerk reaction could have more disastrous effects than its proponents realize. Two of Grand Teton National Park’s most beloved grizzly bears, #399 and her daughter #610, have become habituated to the hunt in the park, along with many other grizzlies. Every fall they are seen on Antelope Flats and around the Snake River following the gunshots to the nearest gut piles, another controversy in itself. If the hunt were to hypothetically end this year, these two grizzlies, along with many more, would take any cubs they subsequently had into the surrounding national forests where hunters are not required to carry bear spray and where, according to the above article, roughly one-third of grizzlies are killed each year from hunting conflicts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem alone. Thus far, the total grizzly deaths for this year is 51. Even one-third of that is still substantially more than the one that was killed in the history of the Grand Teton National Park elk hunt, yet still alarmingly large in general considering there are only about 600 grizzlies in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Nowhere in the petition, though, does it mention creating a buffer zone around the park, or requiring hunters in national forests to begin carrying, and using, bear spray, though admittedly, most hunters will still reach for a gun before bear spray. Incorporating a buffer zone around Grand Teton National Park would at least lead to some of the bears realizing there isn’t food anymore, causing them to simply go hibernate. If this were to go through as is however, it would dramatically increase the chances of two of Grand Teton National Park’s icons of wildlife disappearing for good, minimizing the roadside encounters we currently have with grizzly bears that has brought so much attention to the park recently. It would also endanger the other grizzlies that have become accustomed to Antelope Flats providing them food during the fall. They won’t just go and hibernate if the hunt were to end, they would continue to follow their noses into the national forests where deaths are much more likely to occur.
It’s a rather delicate conundrum that may not have an easy solution to find, but if there is to be a movement to end the hunt for good, let’s make sure it’s done right and is thought through rather than just creating an immediate outcry from a first-time incident in the park. Only through setting aside emotions and biases can we find a solution that minimizes bear casualties that would otherwise occur in areas surrounding Grand Teton National Park.