Three years ago, Tom France and Hank Fischer were on a roll. The two veteran conservationists from Missoula, Mont., had successfully completed negotiations with timber and labor leaders to bring back grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot country that straddles the Idaho/Montana border.
It was a
political and biological breakthrough: This population would form a
third leg upon which the beleaguered grizzly bear population in the
lower 48 could stand, the other legs being the Yellowstone
population and the Glacier/Bob Marshall population in northwestern
Even more promising, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, which is responsible for recovering the grizzly
bear, had accepted the unconventional coalition's plan as its
Polls had shown that most
people in Idaho and Montana wanted the grizzly back, even though it
would add danger to backcountry travel. Newspaper editorials and
articles around the country praised the plan as a breakthrough in
the longstanding feud between environmentalists and industry.
France and Fischer boldly proclaimed that, by 1997, the big bears
would be roaming the forested mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot,
where they hadn't been seen since the 1940s.
something happened, and today there are still no grizzlies in
Idaho. And though the members of the coalition known as the
Resource Organization on Timber Supply (or ROOTS) remain optimistic
that their plan will work, some observers say getting the great
bruins into Idaho may take another decade - if it happens at all.
The immediate cause of delay is a few sentences
that have been tacked onto the giant Interior Appropriations bill
for 1999. The sentences, by Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, R, forbid
the federal government from spending any money on the project for a
But the larger obstacle faced by Fischer,
France and other members of the ROOTS coalition seems to be
widespread fear of the bear, combined with a lack of political
support. Even local environmental groups have been quiet on the
subject. A recent poll taken in Idaho showed that support for
grizzly reintroduction has plummeted to 30 percent among
"This has taken longer than I hoped,"
admits Fischer, who is the Northern Rockies representative for
Defenders of Wildlife. "We're trying to expand the circle of those
involved, trying to make the proposal more acceptable, but it's
been hard to get people engaged."
Flexible plan meets rigid
From the start, members of ROOTS knew
it would be difficult to sell anything to do with the federal
government and an endangered species in conservative Idaho. That's
why they came up with a plan unlike any seen before under the
Endangered Species Act.
It calls for a citizens'
committee, appointed by the governors of Idaho and Montana, to
oversee management of the bears. The bears themselves would be
designated an "experimental" population, which means ranchers or
homeowners could shoot the bears, without fear of penalty, if the
bears caused trouble. It also means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service would not "lock up" any land for the grizzly as critical
"Our solution doesn't allow the grizzly
to become a surrogate for other land-management issues," says Bill
Mulligan, president of Three Rivers Timber in Kamiah, Idaho, and
one of the architects of the plan.
flexibility, the response from many people in Idaho - especially
those in the small timber towns surrounding the public lands where
the reintroduction would take place - has been downright frigid. At
hearings held last year following the release of a draft
environmental impact statement, dozens of men and women spoke
passionately of their fear of the bear and their dislike of the
federal government (HCN, 10/27/97). Earlier this year, the
commissioners of Idaho's Lemhi and Custer counties passed
ordinances forbidding the introduction of grizzlies in their
Lemhi County has also produced and
distributed a new video, "Grizzly Bears Serve No Purpose in Idaho,"
which includes footage of bloodied cow carcasses from grizzly kills
in Wyoming and anti-grizzly statements from ranchers, county
commissioners and even Idaho Gov. Phil Batt,
"There's no limit on how much habitat
grizzlies will need," says Batt on the video. "Grizzlies are not
compatible with human activity. We're getting along fine without
(them), and I hope the national authorities will see fit to drop
this ill-conceived plan."
grizzly "makes about as much sense as reintroducing the polio
virus," echoes Heber Stokes, a rancher and Lemhi County
Mark Solomon, a former commissioner
from Idaho's Latah County, and now the director of the Public Lands
Council in Spokane, Wash., says the intense opposition goes beyond
fear of bears and federal control. He suggests an almost Freudian
explanation: "Their parents killed the bear out and they can't
accept that their father was wrong," Solomon says. "The fear of
getting killed by a grizzly is a convenient fiction that masks this
larger philosophical problem."
No matter what
its philosophical underpinnings, the opposition has gotten the
attention of politicians. Despite intense lobbying efforts from the
coalition, the congressional delegations of both Montana and Idaho
have been either quiet on grizzly reintroduction or outright
Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, R, has been
the only politician to engage the plan. He has said he will support
reintroduction if a few changes are made, including more authority
for the citizens' management committee.
silence from Idaho Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R, and Montana Sen. Max
Baucus, D - both leaders on Endangered Species Act reform - has
been particularly disappointing to the
"I'd like to see more political
support, especially from Republicans who argue that we should be
trying new approaches to conservation, including local
involvement," says Tom France, an attorney with the National
Wildlife Federation and a High Country News board member. "If you
can't support this, what can you support?"
the response from the conservation community has never been warm.
The Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Sierra Club
oppose the idea of introducing grizzlies with no habitat protection
guarantees and with local citizens calling the
"The reintroduction process needs to be
rethought," says the Sierra Club's Louisa Willcox. "The citizens'
committee needs to have more scientists and it needs to be
The coalition had higher hopes for
groups based in Idaho, particularly the Idaho Conservation League.
After a considerable internal debate, however, the league decided
not to tackle the grizzly reintroduction issue. Part of the reason,
says executive director Rick Johnson, was division within the
ranks. "There's not enough people in my own organization who
support bear recovery for us to get involved," he says, noting that
some people just don't want to backpack in grizzly
There was also a broader political
calculus. "It's hard being an environmentalist in Idaho," says
Johnson. "We have to be selective, and what we do, we have to do
well. Just jamming another critter down Idaho's throat will blow
things up," and make working with locals on environmental issues
that much more difficult, he says.
it may take years for the political climate in Idaho to change to
the point where bringing grizzlies back makes
"When I've got blood on the floor with the
loss of roadless areas and salmon," he says, "don't talk to me
about an intellectual exercise. Maybe restoring grizzlies is the
next generation's task."
Getting back on
Some environmentalists suggest that a
broader education effort is needed to win more support for adding
grizzlies to Idaho.
"No one is doing the
on-the-ground education about how it is possible to live with
grizzlies," says John McCarthy, the Idaho Conservation League's
conservation director. "We need a realistic education effort, like
we had with the wolves. We need to bring some Montana hunters and
outfitters who know how to live with bears to Idaho. They could
reassure Idahoans that they can do this. Sure, having grizzlies
adds an element of danger, but that's the point."
Hadley Roberts, a retired Forest Service
biologist and Idaho Conservation League member from Salmon, says he
doubts an education effort would work in his community, which is
near the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, where the
bears might return.
"The less said about the
grizzly, the better," says Roberts. "It just inflames people to
talk about it."
The plan's slow progress doesn't
surprise Jay Gore, grizzly bear coordinator for the U.S. Forest
Service. He notes that it took 15 years to overcome opposition from
conservative Western senators such as Al Simpson, Malcolm Wallop,
and James McClure and get wolves on the ground in Yellowstone and
"It may take two, five or eight years to
get grizzlies on the ground in Idaho, but I think it will happen,"
Although Sen. Burns' rider to the
Appropriations Bill will prevent the federal government from moving
bears to the Selway-Bitterroot next year, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service says it plans to complete its final environmental
impact statement this winter. In the meantime, Gore says, the
Forest Service will do some groundwork, pumping money into a
program designed to teach outfitters, campers and others in central
Idaho and western Montana how to keep human food-waste out of the
mouths of wildlife, including bears.
year also promises a change in the political scenery. Phil Batt is
stepping down as governor and the more moderate Idaho Sen.
Kempthorne is considered a shoo-in to take his place. And Rep. Mike
Crapo, R - also considered a moderate voice by Idaho standards - is
vying for Kempthorne's vacant Senate seat.
and Fischer, meanwhile, say they will keep trying to broaden the
appeal of their proposal.
"This proposal has
always been a problem-solving exercise: When you solve one problem,
there's always another that needs to be worked on," says France.
"Our basic proposals are sound, and as we approach the finish line,
I think the politicians will see that this is the best deal in
Paul Larmer is HCN's
senior editor and the editor of the paper's Writers on the Range