Salmon says no bears, no way

  • Coming back? Grizzly bear

    Erwin and Peggy Bauer photo
  • Lenore Barrett, Idaho state representative

    Andrew Scutro/Idaho Mtn. Express

SALMON, Idaho - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Northern Rockies got a tense reception at a public hearing in Salmon, Idaho, Oct. 8. For more than four hours, speakers blasted the plan before an audience of 200, saying grizzlies have no place in Idaho.

At issue is a draft environmental impact statement released in July that outlines alternatives for bringing grizzlies back to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in central Idaho and western Montana. The Fish and Wildlife Service's preferred alternative, the product of an alliance between environmental groups and the timber industry, would create a citizens' committee to help manage transplanted "nonessential" grizzlies (HCN, 8/4/97).

But in Salmon, on the Montana border just outside the proposed reintroduction area, residents made it abundantly clear that they don't want grizzlies in their backyards.

Resident Jeff Birch shouted at the one federal staffer present, "I'm sick and tired of you sitting there, thinking you're bigger than us, trying to tell me what's going to happen here. And so is everyone else except for a couple of enviro-idiots who've had their brains washed."

The hearing, which Fish and Wildlife had cancelled once because of concerns for the safety of agency officials and bear supporters, was re- scheduled on the condition that the town provide law enforcement. The agency had good reason to be worried: Salmon police had to remove two angry citizens from the meeting, held in the Pioneer Elementary School gymnasium.

Salmon residents accused Fish and Wildlife officials of wasting tax dollars on "junk science" to support their contention that the bears can co-exist with the state's human population. The agency predicts bears will cause at most one injury per year and one human fatality every decade.

Nearly all 60 speakers said they were terrified of grizzly bears. Salmon Mayor Stan Davis pointed his finger at the Fish and Wildlife officer. "If I or someone in my family is injured by one of your bears," he said, amid mounting applause, "I'm holding those behind reintroduction personally responsible for murder."

Another resident echoed the community's fear for public safety. "These are not cute little teddy bears that you can walk out and pet," she said. "They're vicious monsters. When our ancestors got rid of grizzlies around here, they knew what they were doing."

But to many county residents, bear reintroduction had little to do with wildlife, and a lot to do with state sovereignty, a way of life and property rights. Lemhi County is 91 percent federal land, and the mining and timber industries are two of the county's top five employers.

"I'm a lot less scared of grizzlies than I am of the Endangered Species Act," Idaho State Sen. Don Burtenshaw told the group.

County commissioners, state Fish and Game Department representatives and local business owners argued that the citizen management committee would have no real power. They pointed to the provision in the draft environmental impact statement that gives the secretary of the Interior power to take over bear management, and thus give the federal government more direct control over Idaho's federal lands.

"The 'greens' want to make the West uninhabitable to people and to natural resource industries," said State Representative Lenore Barrett. "(Bear reintroduction) is nothing but a polite form of genocide."

Stifled support

A few present spoke in favor of bringing back the grizzly. But members of conservation groups like the Friends of the Bitterroot and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said the preferred alternative gave too much control to local people. They support "Alternative 4," which would give the grizzly full protection as an endangered species and provide more stringent protection of bear habitat.

Bear backers met howls from the audience. When Salmon resident David Richmond spoke of the grizzly as "beautiful and belonging in the wilderness," he was shouted down.

Hank Fischer of the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, who helped draft the bear proposal, wasn't surprised by the strong feelings in Salmon. "There are people at both ends of the spectrum here," says Fischer. "Now our groups need to sit down, look at comments and concerns, and alter this proposal so we broaden the circle as much as possible."

Although the proposal met similar opposition in Challis, Idaho, bear supporters dominated most of the hearings in the region, says Fischer. At a hearing in Missoula, Mont., supporters of Alternative 4 - the "conservation biology alternative" - far outnumbered bear opponents.

"I don't think the whole world is lined up against it," Fischer says. While Republican congressional representatives like Idaho's Helen Chenoweth and Larry Craig and Montana's Conrad Burns oppose the grizzly proposal, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot has come out in favor of the plan, with a few stipulations. Fischer is hopeful other politicians will support it soon.

"We in the West are becoming more accepting of large predators," he says. "We took a real turn with the Yellowstone wolves. That doesn't mean there aren't still people out there with real concerns. But once we get bears on the ground, a lot of these fears will be alleviated."

The Fish and Wildlife Service should decide on grizzly reintroduction next spring. The public comment period on the proposal continues through Nov. 1.

Former HCN intern Emily Miller reports for the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum.

You can ...

* Write comments until Nov. 1 to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bitterroot Grizzly Bear EIS, P.O. Box 5127, Missoula, MT 59806.

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