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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Return of the Grizzlies?

Air Date: Week of

After a decade of research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that the best way to ensure a stable grizzly bear population in the lower forty-eight states is to reintroduce the bears to remote wilderness areas in central Idaho. Like the reintroduction of the wolf, the plan to reestablish grizzlies is facing opposition from some rural residents, but this time around the government is enlisting the local community to help manage the bears' survival. From member station KBSU in Boise, Jyl Hoyt reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
If you've ever met a grizzly bear in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, you were lucky and probably more than a little bit scared. Lucky, because these magnificent beasts with their silver-tipped and chocolate-colored fur are rare and usually only found in national parks and wilderness areas. And scared, perhaps because, well, these are very, very big bears. Early settlers in the West were happy to hunt grizzlies to the edge of extinction. Now, in an effort to stabilize the remaining grizzly population, the US Fish and Wildlife Service wants to expand their range to remote wilderness areas in central Idaho. Like the programs to bring back wolves, this plan faces opposition from some rural residents, but this time the government is taking a different tack. It's enlisting the local community to help manage the bears' survival. From member station KBSU in Boise, Jyl Hoyt reports.

HOYT: Grizzly bears were wiped out of most of Idaho and Montana years ago. And that's fine with many local people, who consider grizzlies a threat and a nuisance.

(Voices in a crowded bar)

MAN 1: As far as being a sportsman, I don't think that bringing them back in is going to do any good for me. All it's going to do is close me out of someplace.

HOYT: How is that?

MAN 1: Well, they're going to have to shut down a section of the forest protect the damn things.

MAN 2: I think people are probably more important than grizzly bears.

HOYT: These patrons of the Silver Dollar Bar in Stites, a lumber mill town in central Idaho, say they're afraid of grizzlies and don't like the tighter Federal regulation of logging and other activities that often comes with protected species. Biologists estimate that 50,000 grizzly bears once roamed the American West before they were nearly wiped out by white settlers. Today, barely a thousand survive, most in remote regions of the northern Rockies. Now, though, scientists recognize the bear's value to a healthy ecosystem and say grizzlies can and should live in a broader area.

(Bird song)

HOYT: Grizzlies once thrived in the Bitterroot, an ecosystem that begins in Montana with knife-edged mountain ranges, then descends like a series of waterfalls into central Idaho. Huckleberries and glacier lilies carpet forest floors in the wilderness areas and national forests. Chris Servheen is a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

SERVHEEEN: We did a 5-year habitat evaluation to look at the available foods in the area. Keep in mind that about 90% of their diet is vegetation and insects. And we found that indeed, all the foods that bears need are available in this area.

HOYT: During the next quarter century, Federal biologists plan to move 25 grizzlies from the US and Canada to the Idaho wilderness. They hope that these slowly-reproducing behemoths will eventually repopulate a wide area. But Federal wildlife officials say they've learned from the recent experience of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park in central Idaho. Then, many local residents dug in their heels against what they saw as the Federal Government forcing unpopular actions on local people. So this time, officials worked with residents, businesses, and environmentalists on a plan to put the reintroduction under local control.

FISCHER: At some level, people in these local communities know the territory. They know the land better than people who live far away.

HOYT: Hank Fischer is with Defenders of Wildlife.

FISCHER: And so they have a better opportunity to create more imaginative solutions, to resolve conflicts more effectively, than people who live far away.

HOYT: Under what's called the Citizen Management Plan, a local committee would be responsible for the grizzly's survival. The committee would decide what sort of activities to allow or prohibit in actual or potential bear habitat, and would manage any interaction between bears and livestock. If a grizzly threatens people, the committee would even decide whether to shoot or relocate the bear. All of these decisions would be monitored by the Interior Secretary, who could intervene if the goals of the reintroduction aren't being met. This new approach has won a lot of support. As he makes the rounds of the Organized Labor Hall in Lewiston, Idaho, Council Leader Phil Church explains that people in central Idaho, worried about restrictions on logging, hunting, and outfitting, ultimately realized that the bear project was going to go ahead with or without them.

CHURCH: The majority of the people understand that we do need to reintroduce the bear, understand that we do need to be involved with these kinds of issues, and that we're going to continue to be involved if we're going to protect our jobs and our future and our way of life here in Idaho.

HOYT: Mr. Church says it was Idaho's way of life, a reverence for the outdoors, hunting and fishing, hiking and boating, that formed a common bond among timber workers like himself, industry, and environmentalists.

CHURCH: I"m proud to say that I can actually call these people friends. We've worked real well together.

HOYT: But to gain the acceptance of enough local people, officials had to make one significant concession: that they wouldn't restrict activity in the national forests around the wilderness areas where the bears will be released. In particular, there would be no new restrictions on logging to accommodate the bears. Environmental activist Mike Bader, Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, unfolds a large map showing the area his group says would be necessary to support a healthy grizzly population.

(Rustling paper)

HOYT: The territory spills out beyond the designated wilderness areas, far into unprotected national forests. He says the Citizen Management Plan concedes too much.

BADER: It's fine to have bears in the wilderness areas, but the wilderness areas aren't big enough. And that's an easy concession for the timber industry to agree to. So what? We'll have grizzlies in the wilderness. We can't log there anyway. So they give up nothing, and they get a lot in return. They get access to these roadless areas of the national forests that are currently unprotected, and they're really the stronghold of central Idaho.

HOYT: Mr. Bader and many other biologists would rather the government close roadless areas of the national forest to logging, restore damage already done by previous logging, and take no direct action on the bears, than to adopt a scientifically weak compromise.

BADER: You know, it's better to protect that land and wait for a better time to do this.

HOYT: The Fish and Wildlife Service will choose next spring among the Citizen Management Plan; Mr. Bader's conservation alternative; allowing bears to slowly return on their own; or actually preventing their return. If Citizen Management is chosen, it would face immediate challenges. Idaho Governor Phil Batt would appoint half the committee members, but he's adamantly opposed to reintroduction. So bear advocates worry his appointees might work against recovery. And then, there's the still very real fear of grizzlies themselves. The wilderness areas here draw thousands of hikers, campers, and fishers each year. Many of these people say they have a reverence for bears, and a keen desire to see them. But others are apprehensive about encountering bears, and that could create problems with any reintroduction plan. So efforts are underway to counter these fears, including one at Rattlesnake Middle School in Missoula, Montana, where computer students make web pages about how to camp safely in bear country.

GIRL: We just want to make sure that people who don't live in Montana know that lots of the animals and wildlife that are surrounding us are really not so vicious, you know? I mean, they have good sides to them.

HOYT: Ultimately, says US Fish and Wildlife biologist Chris Servheen, the main requirement for bringing grizzlies back to the Idaho wild lands is tolerance.

SERVHEEEN: The ironic part about bears is they appear to be big and aggressive and powerful above all else. And yet, their fate and their future is totally in our hands.

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho



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