At least 51 bears have died so far this year in the Yellowstone area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Most have died at the hands of wildlife agents who kill bears that cause repeated problems or during run-ins with hunters, who sometimes shoot the animals in self-defense.
The bear population is closely tracked, and the government sets limits on the percentage of bears that can die in any given year for the population to remain healthy.
With such detailed accounting, grizzly managers could set hunting limits that the species could safely tolerate without risk to the overall population, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly coordinator Chris Servheen.
Chris Colligan with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition said hunting discussions are premature, particularly when the number of bears killed by humans is high even in the absence of hunting. Dave Smith, a conservationist and author of a book on backcountry bear encounters, added that there would be nothing to stop government officials from raising mortality limits to accommodate more hunting.
"I think the plan is to delist grizzlies based on what we have now and then say, 'Whoa, we're changing everything,'" Smith said.
State and federal officials rejected that charge, and said any hunts would be tightly controlled and highly conservative.
Servheen said they would differ significantly from wolf hunts now taking place in the Northern Rockies. For wolves, states have lifted quotas on the predators with the explicit aim of driving down their pack numbers through aggressive hunting and trapping.
By contrast, said Servheen, "you could probably count on one hand" the number of bears that could be legally killed in any given year if hunting is allowed, he said.
"Hunting is a tool, particularly to reduce populations in some areas on the periphery (of their range) where we may not want a lot of bears. We're trying to get it on the radar screen as we approach the management of healthy, recovered populations," he said.