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Know the West

Will bears get a break?


With all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile use skyrocketing in the backcountry, environmentalists fear the machines could spell disaster for grizzly bears. Several groups recently sued the Forest Service to force the agency to study the way ATV and snowmobile use affects endangered grizzlies in Montana's Gallatin National Forest.

"It's time for them to step up to the plate and do some honest-to-God monitoring," says Louisa Willcox of the Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project, one of the groups suing the Forest Service. She's sure that once they gather the facts, the Forest Service will realize that grizzlies and motorized recreation don't mix.

Biologists and ecologists say studies over the past 20 years show that roads fragment habitat, increase conflicts between humans and bears, and offer access to poachers (HCN, 11/8/99: A new road for the public lands). Shawn Regnerus, a staffer with Predator Conservation Alliance, a group involved in the suit, says ATV and snowmobile use only adds to these problems. "They're able to go places they've never been able to go before," he says.

In a letter responding to the groups' suit, Gallatin Forest Supervisor Dave Garber says little is known about the effects of snowmobiles on hibernating and emerging bears. His agency plans to begin monitoring snowmachine use in grizzly areas this spring.

Bob Stevenson, president of the Big Sky Country Trail Preservers, a group of ATV and motorcycle users, says the Forest Service also needs to look at the impacts of nonmotorized recreation. "It's hikers, backpackers and hunters that get attacked by bears," says Stevenson. "Maybe this type of recreation should also be studied and restricted."