On grizzlies, babies and a shrinking land

 

I got married last fall and was immediately inundated with questions concerning when my husband and I were planning on having kids. Someone even sent me a card wishing me lots and lots of little ones. The sentiment behind that wish is really what brought ISO folks and me together in mid-January to hear a discussion - a debate, actually - on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Draft Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan.

Babies and grizzlies? There is a Simple connection here, one often overlooked by an environmental community steeped in details. The players at this discussion were Chris Servheen, coordinator of the InterAgency Grizzly Bear Recovery Committee and author of the draft plan, and Keith Hammer, an active environmentalist from western Montana, who has, taken it upon himself to research bears extensively.

Servheen's plan deals mostly in numbers. He is shooting for MVPs (not an NFL term; here it means minimum viable populations),which he estimates through monitoring. Once he reaches and sustains those MVPs; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider the bear "recovered." Servheen told me that recovery was yearsaway. The grumblings of the environmental community, though, conclude that it is Servheen's and many agencies' desire to delist the bear as soon as possible. This would enable them to pat themselves on the back for a recovery job well done and at the same time remove the messy strings the Endangered Species Act attaches to the natural resource industries.

These grumblings have turned into assaults on Servheen's plan. Environmentalists say the recovery targets are too low. Hammer's chief gripe is that Servheen' s MVP approach is too minimalistic and conservative, erring on the side of extinction. Hammer contends that if the minimum viable population is what the recovery plan attempts to achieve, then natural fluctuations in population on the downside could be disastrous. He feels the plan's goals should be a safe margin above the MVP. What Hammer really feels is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shouldn't use MVPs as its main tool at all. He is right, I think. Just how accurate is bear monitoring? Bears have learned to stay away from humans for the most part They do not live in accessible spots. We cannot count them as we do hawks in a flyway. They are not that predictable. I know - I spent a few days a couple of summers ago working to monitor bears in the Scapegoat Wilderness in Montana. We walked many hours, went to places where wilderness rangers told us the bears were supposed to be, and did not count one.

Official observers who do spot bears arrive at vastly different numbers each year. In the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, one of the seven proposed areas of recovery, 39 female bears with cubs were spotted in 1989. (When monitoring bears, you only count females with cubs; biologists project each pair to represent 20 bears in the population.) In 1990, 13 pairs were counted. This assumes that 780 bears existed in 1989 while 260 did a year later. So then, what is a biologist to do when drafting a recovery plan? Count acres, not bodies. The most we can do for the grizzly is ensure that it has plenty of space to thrive in, not merely survive in. Instead of bickering over how we count bears and what we should be aiming to count, we should be drafting large areas that are protected for bears. This is where we run into dilemmas. When the biologists draw lines large enough to ensure the bears' survival, they invariably have to draw them around private land. Servheen says that private landowners cause the biggest conflict in bear management. It was America's expansion westward, he says, that brought about the demise of  the bear. It now occupies 2 percent of its original range. Landowners today have the same gripes with bears that they did a century ago; the bears are a threat to them: In reality, we are the threat to the bear, not vice versa.

Charles Jonkel, a noted bear biologist, contends that humans are the fourth species of bear in North America (next to the black, grizzly and polar bears). He feels we act and react much as bears do. Only our opposable thumb and robust rate of procreation have given us the advantage, and we have used them to invade this fellow species' territory. This has not been a friendly takeover. We have decimated the grizzly by usurping its historical range. Now scientists playing diplomat have decided that the grizzly deserves to roam free in 2 percent of its former homeland. It is uncertain, though, whether this resettlement will work; some scientists say what is now considered a minimum "viable" population actually will lead to extinction in about 100 years. Even if scientists trash the minimum population approach and concentrate on maximum habitat, we still do not know what kinds of consequences the fourth species of bears - humans - will have on the grizzly in 100 years. Our victory in the conquering of the West was Pyrrhic. at once the end of the grizzly and the beginning of our own defeat.

Our greatest weapon in this battle has been our numbers. We have annexed too much space, and we aren't contemplating any withdrawal. In fact, we keep marching on. Now we are turning the weapon of overpopulation onto ourselves. What would the demise of the grizzly predict about our lives? The population of the United States has nearly doubled since 1940. There are many folks where I live in Montana who knew a different Montana in 1940 than they know today. The local hillsides look like war zones now. The damage is evident and the demise of the griz imminent, yet we continue our war cries while breeding our weapons. We can bicker and moan at each other in our battle about what is going to help the bear now, but ultimately we need to look at maps less, crunch numbers less, and begin to wage war on overpopulation. 

Tracy Stone-Manning is a freelance writer and a graduate student at the University of Montana-Missoula.

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