Jane Goodall is a global icon, perhaps the most admired living environmentalist and legendary for her research with chimpanzees. Cynthia Moss is famous for her conservation work in eastern Africa battling elephant poachers and speaking out against trophy hunting.
Within the last few days, Goodall, 84, and Moss, 78, entered a lottery hoping to win a coveted hunting license in Wyoming allowing them to sport shoot a grizzly bear in the Yellowstone region. They have no aspirations to actually kill a bruin. Their maneuver is part of a mass act of civil disobedience to protest Wyoming’s controversial hunt of up to 22 grizzlies—the first in 44 years—slated to commence only weeks from now.
Called “Shoot ‘em With A Camera, Not A Gun,” the impromptu campaign, spearheaded mainly by women, has caught hunting officials in Wyoming off guard. It has also created a groundswell among those who condemn the state’s recommencement of a trophy season on grizzlies just a year after they were removed from federal protection. In May, Wyoming’s wildlife commission approved the hunt unanimously 7-0.
“People felt desperate, wanting to do something positive that could help keep these bears alive. I think we surprised ourselves at how much public support this has gotten in so little time,” says Jackson Hole conservationist Lisa Robertson.
The strategy of “Shoot ‘em With A Camera” is to swamp Wyoming’s random system for allocating bear licenses with applications from non-hunters. Should they be awarded a coveted tag, they’ll head into the mountains this fall to take pictures of grizzlies rather than stalking them with rifles.
Begun less than a week ago, “Shoot ‘em” has gone viral on social media. A final push is being made to enlist thousands of bear advocates to apply for a hunting license (https://wgfd.wyo.gov/apply-or-buy) before Monday’s deadline (July 16) at midnight mountain time.
The campaign grew out of a meeting of 19 concerned citizens (16 of them women) and then a group of five who floated the unconventional concept in an ad in the local Jackson Hole newspaper. Ann Smith provided her phone number to answer any questions and she braced for the worse.
“What stunned me is the number of positive calls I’ve received and 85 to 90 percent have come from women,” Smith says. Driving around Jackson Hole in a replica antique pick-up truck, the bed of Smith’s vehicle has a near life-sized stuffed teddy bear in it with a sign that reads “Grizzly Lives Matter.” “No one has called me up on the phone and yelled at me,” she said. I’ve received lots of affirmative horn honks and people giving me thumbs up.”
Brian Nesvik, chief game warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, is not so enamored. He acknowledged he was surprised at how fast the campaign mobilized, heightening a level of drama that was already unprecedented given that it involves the wildlife symbol of the Yellowstone region.
Thousands of hunters nationwide and plenty in his state, he said, are excited by the prospect of being able to take a grizzly, with the odds of securing a license still astronomically low. Now, with perhaps thousands of additional applications pouring in, it makes those chances even slimmer.
“This is more about taking away hunting opportunity than having an impact on our population management objective,” Nesvik said, noting that with 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone region, Wyoming’s quota will not jeopardize the population.
In Wyoming, population 580,000, citizens are divided over whether bears should be killed for sport. During a nationwide public comment session, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was readying to turn management of grizzlies over to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, more than 650,000 people weighed in, the vast majority expressing opposition to trophy hunting.
The discussion about wildlife management in America has long been dominated by hunters, but with their numbers declining nationwide, non-consumptive admirers of nature are refusing to stand passively on the sidelines, says attorney Deidre Bainbridge.
Concern over grizzlies has created a force to be reckoned with, she says. “Now we, many strong women, are speaking out for wildlife management based on science, fact and respect for life, not money and politics.” (Learn more about Yellowstone, America’s wild idea.)
The lottery selects license recipients at random based on a computer program, the same kind used to award permits to kill other big game species. Three quarters of the licenses are reserved for Wyomingites and the rest for out-of-staters. Nesvik acknowledges the campaign could mean fewer bears die.
While it costs less than $20 to enter Wyoming’s grizzly hunt sweepstakes, those few individuals who get licenses then have to shell out for the tag—$602 for Wyoming residents and $6,002 for out-of-staters (who also must then enlist a guide).
American wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen, who stands firmly opposed to the hunt, has signed up for the lottery and if a non-Wyoming resident secures a tag he said he’ll pay half of their $6,000 fee. To help others who do get a tag cover their costs, there’s also a fundraising campaign at GoFundMe.
The tactic of using licenses not to kill bears is legal. “I just feel it’s wrong to kill animals for fun,” Moss told National Geographic as she was visiting Wyoming this week. “Tourism brings in millions upon millions more than any amount generated through the killing of grizzlies. The economic rationale being made by people who simply want to shoot bears doesn’t hold water.”
Wyoming has spent tens of millions of dollars to manage grizzlies since 1975. But that’s actually a small number when extrapolated over four decades and compared to the $1 billion annually generated for the regional economy based on nature-related tourism in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks alone. Wildlife watching ranks among the most desired activities by travelers and interest in it continues to grow.
Judy Hofflund has been coming to Wyoming for 50 years and remembers the era when grizzlies were virtually eliminated and few thought they would return. Hofflund has a vacation home in Jackson Hole and recently retired from a long career as an agent in Hollywood for actors such as Kenneth Branagh, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sally Field, and Kevin Kline.
Yet it’s been a different star in recent years that caught her eye—famed Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, arguably the most famous bear in the world, beloved to millions. 399, often viewed along the roadsides of Grand Teton National Park, is 22 years old and, with two cubs at her side, has again been attracting large crowds.
“When the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population was delisted [removed from federal protection] and it became apparent states like Wyoming wanted to offer bears as trophies to hunters, it broke my heart,” she said. “Grizzly 399 is such a beautiful mother, intelligent and caring. This effort is our attempt to give bears like her a voice.” (How the world’s most famous wolf lived hard.)
Where Wyoming is leading the Lower 48 back into a new era of grizzly hunting, citing human intolerance toward bears as a reason for targeting them in areas where they aren’t wanted, the Canadian province of British Columbia serves as a counterpoint. It recently ended grizzly hunting, citing declining social tolerance for trophy hunting. British Columbia has roughly 20 times the number of grizzlies that Wyoming does and they roam across a much larger area.
Hunting grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an anachronism, says endangered animal advocate Heather Lang Mycoskie, who spends summers in Jackson Hole and sits on the national council of the Humane Society of the U.S. Not only has she applied for a grizzly tag herself but she’s recruited family and friends to do the same, including people who hunt birds and big game for the table.
“The debate now isn’t one of hunters vs. non-hunters,” she said. “There’s a divide in the hunting community that has opened up whether grizzlies should be shot as trophies.” Mycoskie has received a helping hand in spreading the word about “Shoot ‘em With A Camera” from her entrepreneur-philanthropist husband, Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoes.
Nesvik says Wyoming is actually being conservative with the number of bears it is allowing hunters to take. “I really, truly respect those people who have a philosophical disagreement with grizzly hunting. And I respect people expressing their opinions that engaging in trophy hunting is an unethical activity. But some opponents are being disingenuous in skewing the science,” Nesvik said. “The science supports what we are are doing and it is not refutable. It’s as solid as we have for any species.”
Goodall is an ardent fan of grizzly 399. She also has accompanied her close friend Mangelsen, who lives in Jackson Hole and has chronicled the bruin’s life, on bear-viewing trips to Yellowstone and Alaska. Goodall made her opposition to grizzly hunting known to members of Congress, arguing it’s a travesty to turn bears beloved by millions into stuffed heads on the wall or floor rug that benefit only a few people.
The hunt itself may be endangered. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen is expected to issue a ruling in August on legal challenges to removing the bears from federal protection. If animal advocates prevail in the case, Wyoming’s hunt could be suspended.
“This is the start of a movement,” Robertson said. “We want to show that the worth of an animal is not measured by how much you can collect from killing it.”
This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.