Bringing back grizzlies splits environmentalists

  • Grizzly bear restoration plan

    Diane Sylvain
  It seems a deal made in heaven. The timber industry in the Northern Rockies and two major environmental groups have agreed to back the restoring of grizzly bears to central Idaho and western Montana.


The proposal is not trivial. The land area - 5,500 square miles - is as big as the area 236 grizzly bears now occupy in and around Yellowstone. The goal is eventually to see 200 to 300 bears roaming the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church River of No Return wilderness areas. The bears would be reintroduced into wilderness, but they are expected to quickly spread onto surrounding national forest and private land.


The politics surrounding this proposal is enough to make anyone pinch herself. In Idaho, which has 80 percent of the reintroduction area, three of the four members of the conservative Idaho congressional delegation more or less back the proposal. The opponent is freshman Rep. Helen Chenoweth. In Montana, Gov. Marc Racicot is a strong supporter, despite furious opposition from several thousand people in the suburbanizing Bitterroot Valley, just east of the two wilderness areas


If and when the idea reaches the administration, President Bill Clinton will probably welcome it as a sign of a new, effective and efficient brand of environmentalism. Instead of the two decades and several million dollars wolf reintroduction cost, the grizzly process might take no more than two years, and cost a piddling $250,000. And instead of a Wyoming livestock industry that still passionately resists the wolves, the dominant on-the-ground population in central Idaho - timber workers - are united behind the bears.


The story has played well across the region, with the only negative editorials being those chastising Chenoweth and her supporters for knocking the proposal. It has also done well nationally, with Peter Jennings' nightly news show on ABC showing environmentalists, loggers and executives standing shoulder-to-shoulder for the bear. The only carping note came from a horse breeder who didn't want her $10,000 animals anywhere near free-range grizzlies. The good news is already back in Washington, D.C., thanks to an Oct. 29, 1995, story by Tom Kenworthy in the Washington Post. The photo with the article showed Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife flanked by two timber industry allies: Seth Diamond of the Intermountain Forest Industry Assocation and Dan Johnson of the Resource Organization on Timber Supply (ROOTS).


Missing from the photo was attorney Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation, who says that being allied with the timber industry is "like walking around with a (friendly) 800-pound gorilla."


On the surface, then, the results so far indicate that consensus can create more than good feelings; it can also produce impressive change on the ground.


But it is not just Helen Chenoweth who hasn't gotten the consensus religion. With the exception of Defenders and National Wildlife Federation, almost every environmental group in the region, from the no-compromise Alliance for the Wild Rockies to centrist outfits like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Idaho Conservation League, vigorously oppose the proposal. These dozen or so groups say it is a bad deal for any Canadian grizzly unlucky enough to be dumped into Idaho. They believe the bear's chances for survival will be low, because the reintroduction proposal says absolutely nothing about how the national forest land will be managed. They also say it sets a terrible precedent for managing public land and other endangered species.


They have two objections. First, the agreement specifically states that nothing is being said about habitat protection of the national forest and private lands surrounding the wilderness areas. That is left for separate decision-making forums. Second, the introduced bears will be a so-called nonessential population, and outside the protection the Endangered Species Act normally confers. Decisions about killing or removing a problem bear will be made by a 13-person citizens' committee appointed by the governors of Idaho and Montana. The committee will operate under a direct grant of power from the secretary of Interior, bypassing normal agency procedures.


These two concessions by France and Fischer brought the timber industry and the local communities in central Idaho on board. It meant jobs and recreation were safe from bear reintroduction. But it also brought most of the Northern Rockies' environmental groups into opposition.


But while the opposing groups outnumber those who favor the proposal, so far they have been outmatched. Fischer, France and their timber allies are a powerful coalition. The timber industry has taken care of congressional and statehouse politics. Most important, industry's assurance that this proposal doesn't threaten jobs has unleashed the pro-wildlife instincts in small, working towns such as Orofino and Grangeville. According to a poll, two-thirds of the people who will have to live with the bears day-to-day favor reintroduction. And loggers and mill workers have been vociferous in their support, unlike those living in the suburbanizing communities in Montana's Bitterrroot Valley, east of Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot wilderness.


With the Democratic administration aboard, and with timber convincing Idaho Republican senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne that reintroduction is a great idea, the Fish and Wildlife Service has come up with enough money to produce an environmental impact statement by this June after an extraordinarily short gestation period.


The EIS will almost certainly contain as the preferred alternative the recommendation that came out of talks between the two environmental groups and timber industry executives and unions. Then the battle will begin.


Here is what each side will say.