BITTERROOT VALLEY, Mont. - Once, not so long ago, more than 50,000 grizzly bears inhabited the West. They were not, however, popular with white settlers - farmers, ranchers and railroad men - who briskly eliminated the big bears from all but 2 percent of their former territory.
Grizzlies were particularly widespread in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana and central Idaho. At the start of the 20th century, trappers killed anywhere from 24 to 40 bears in the Bitterroots every year. One hunter boasted of killing 13 grizzlies in the Bitterroots one autumn (HCN, 8/4/97: Trouble for grizzly bear recovery plan).
The last verified death of a grizzly bear in the Bitterroot Mountains was in 1932. The last tracks of a grizzly were seen in 1946.
They are gone, says bear biologist Chris Servheen, "because we killed them" - for sport, for fur and to eliminate the threat they posed to humans and livestock. They were controversial then. And now.
On Nov. 16, Servheen, the federal government's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, announced a plan to reintroduce the endangered bears to 4 million acres of wilderness on either side of the Salmon River, the largest uninterrupted block of wild country south of Canada.
For each of five years beginning in 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will release five grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness areas. They will be the pioneers of a bear colony that could eventually number 280. And that will re-ignite the old debate.
In an effort to make the reintroduction process more palatable, the agency has created an unprecedented citizen management panel that it says gives locals a voice in a federal project. But many people in Montana and Idaho say bringing back the bears is a bad idea and they vow to reverse the federal agency's decision.
Bad news bears
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R, fired the first shot minutes after the decision was announced. "I oppose bringing these massive, flesh-eating carnivores into Idaho," he said. "This is perhaps the first federal land management action in history likely to result in injury or death of members of the public."
Kempthorne says he plans "to explore all legal options available to the state to stop this ill-conceived proposal."
According to John Hossack, retired supervisor of Idaho's Clearwater National Forest, Kempthorne has the support of many Idahoans who use the forests regularly. Backcountry hikers and campers "would rather reintroduce rattlesnakes and water moccasins than grizzly bears," says Hossack. "They are dangerous animals. They will force wilderness managers to close trails and campsites."
"No one in Idaho wants these bears back," says Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho.
But although Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, R, says there are a lot of unknowns about how this will be played out on the ground, he is cautiously optimistic. Racicot supports the unique, citizen-centered approach to grizzly bear management, says Julie Lapeyre, Racicot's natural resources policy advisor.
Sometime early next year, the governors of Idaho and Montana and leaders of the Nez Perce tribe will nominate 15 citizens to the panel. The secretary of Interior will follow with the formal appointments. Then the citizens will start work on the day-to-day chores of transplanting grizzlies to the wilderness, overseeing their movements and resolving any problems.
No one knows exactly how the citizens' committee will work, or how wide will be its authority, says Servheen. "We've never done anything like this before," he says.
The committee's known tasks include development of guidelines for camping and sanitation within the recovery area, developing a "response protocol" for grizzly-human encounters, establishment of an ongoing public participation process and development of strategies to "emphasize grizzly recovery" in the Bitterroots.
Everything else, committee members - with Servheen's guidance - will invent as they go along, he says.
The Bitterroot reintroduction plan is also unusual because it designates grizzlies as "nonessential experimental" animals - rather than as "threatened," their listing under the Endangered Species Act. The nonessential label gives managers greater flexibility in moving or removing so-called problem bears, and it allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for grizzlies that stray onto the Bitterroot Valley floor.
A most innovative plan
It's a plan that some environmentalists and timber industry employees are excited about.
"The whole idea is that if the average person has a concern about bears, there is someone on the committee whom they know and can talk to," says Hank Fischer, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, one of a coalition of environmental, timber industry and union groups that suggested the citizen management approach.
"This is the most innovative plan for dealing with the reintroduction of a controversial endangered species that has ever been developed," Fischer says.
"There is hope for solutions to wildlife and fish issues," says Greg Schildwachter, wildlife program manager for the Intermountain Forest Association. "Because we have come up with a solution, we will have bears back in the Selway-Bitterroot, and we will continue caring for forests in the surrounding area."
Tom France, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, Mont., and another author of the plan, says he recognizes that there are many people who "think this is a really bad idea," but, he adds, he has faith it will work. "I have confidence that most people, when they look at this thing, will say it's really worth a try."
The bottom line, says biologist Servheen, is that grizzly bears must be restored to the Bitterroot Mountains if the species is to be recovered and removed from the endangered species list. "Of all the remaining unoccupied grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48 states, the Bitterroot ecosystem has the best potential for recovering the bear," he says. "It is filled with all the things that bears want. The vegetation, the topography, the diversity of habitats and foods. And the huge block of undeveloped land."
But it is not, he concedes, controversy-free habitat. There likely is no such place.
"Nobody," said Servheen, "has no opinion about grizzly bears."
The writer is a reporter for the Missoulian, in Missoula, Montana.
You can contact ...
- Chris Servheen, federal grizzly bear recovery coordinator, 406/243-4903.
The reintroduction plan is available on the Web at http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/bitterroot.
Copyright 2000 HCN and Sherry Devlin