Idaho grizzly plan shifts into low gear

  • Tom France and Hank Fischer

    photo courtesy Nat'l Wildlife Federation
  • An ant

    rizzly video distributed in Idaho

Note: this story appeared in the print edition as a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

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 Montana.

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 preferred alternative.

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.

But 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 year.

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 residents.

"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 resistance

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 habitat.

"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.

Despite the 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 jurisdictions.

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, R.

"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."

Reintroducing the grizzly "makes about as much sense as reintroducing the polio virus," echoes Heber Stokes, a rancher and Lemhi County commissioner.

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 opposed.

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.

The 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 coalition.

"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?"

Yet 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 shots.

"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 advisory."

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 country.

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.

Johnson says it may take years for the political climate in Idaho to change to the point where bringing grizzlies back makes sense.

"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 track

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 Idaho.

"It may take two, five or eight years to get grizzlies on the ground in Idaho, but I think it will happen," Gore says.

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.

The coming 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.

France 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 town." n

Paul Larmer is HCN's senior editor and the editor of the paper's Writers on the Range column-syndication service.

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