by Jim Laybourn/Jackson Hole News & Guide | JULY 29, 2015
Will our bears share the same fate as Africa’s lions?
A famous male lion seen by thousands of tourists in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park was recently killed by a hunter just outside the park.
Cecil was one of Africa’s most famous lions and was photographed daily in the park over the past decade.
This habituated animal, who had no fear of humans, was killed by a wealthy American hunter whose guides baited the animal outside the park with the carcass of a fresh kill.
While an investigation is still underway, the two people who accompanied the hunter have already been arrested.
That scenario could soon happen to our internationally famous grizzly bears in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
Grand Teton’s grizzlies 399 and 610 are the two most widely viewed and admired bears in the United States, seen and enjoyed by millions of tourists as well as locals.
GPS tracking collars on these bears show that they not only travel to the park’s elk hunt areas to feed on gut piles but also they leave the relative safety of the national park to den in the national forest.
Similarly, Cecil was wearing a GPS tracking collar as part of a study by Oxford University, which was documenting the effects of sport hunting on lions living in the safari area surrounding the park.
During the multiyear study, sport hunters killed 72 percent of the tagged lions from the study area. The lion’s killer allegedly paid guides 50,000 euros to shoot Cecil.
Bryan Orford, a professional safari tour guide who had seen and filmed Cecil many times, told National Geographic that visitors to just a single nearby lodge paid 8,000 euros a day to view wildlife and that Zimbabwe would have made more money from tourists photographing Cecil in just five days than the one time 50,000-euro fee to kill him.
Our regional outfitters are already seeing dollar signs in anticipation of taking out-of-state hunters on grizzly hunts in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. However, it is now proved that roadside grizzly bears are worth millions of dollars each year to regional tourism.
It will be about as challenging as shooting someone’s pet dog when a hunter gets grizzly 399 in his sights, if the state of Wyoming gains control of grizzly management and allows bear hunting in the national forest along the Teton Park boundary.
A new study on bear jams in Yellowstone has finally documented what a powerful draw bears are to tourists. Amazingly, 99 percent of park visitors said they expected to see a bear on their trip, and 67 percent actually did.
Of the visitors surveyed who did not see a bear, 65 percent were disappointed that they did not see one, and more than 60 percent of all visitors surveyed said bear viewing was a “very important” part of their decision to visit Yellowstone.
It is not too surprising that bears are a driving force behind regional tourism. You only have to visit a gateway community for a few minutes before you begin to encounter carved wooden bears adorning businesses, bronze bear sculptures, bear paw logos and every imaginable type of souvenir with a bear theme.
But it is not bear souvenirs that draw people here. It is the dream of actually seeing a live grizzly bear, an animal that stirs people’s imagination in a way that few other North American animals can do, that compels them to travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles and spend their hard-earned vacation dollars here.
Roughly 10 percent of the visitors surveyed said they would visit less frequently if roadside bear viewing was not a possibility, and that has been quantified to a reduction of $10 million less in tourism revenue regionally each year.
Even if you figure in the out-of-state hunting licenses, outfitter fees, travel costs, souvenirs, taxidermy and celebratory drinks at a bar, the amount of money generated by killing a grizzly bear is only a tiny fraction of what that same animal is worth to travel and tourism.
So, whether you love or hate the grizzly bear, the numbers tell us that they are simply worth more alive than dead.
Moran resident Jim Laybourn is a Wyoming native, filmmaker, hunter and wildlife safari guide.