Bears in the Big Wild
Fear. That's what grizzly bears inspire in the wilderness. Although some regard this fear as a healthy response to the critter who challenges humankind's ongoing dominance of nature, the fast-beating heart and sweaty palms that come when adrenaline runs through the blood have long been reminders that people are not always kings of the forest.But the brown bears, which used to populate the nation in the tens of thousands, are absent today from most of their original range. Since 1975, the North American grizzly has been listed by the U.S. government as an endangered species.The populations remaining throughout Montana's Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystems are believed to lack the genetic diversity which would allow them to survive beyond the next 100 years. So-called remnant populations elsewhere in the lower 48 round out what's left south of Canada.Before the end of the century, however, the federal government plans to reintroduce grizzlies to an Ohio-sized wilderness area in central Idaho, known as the greater Salmon-Selway ecosystem, which overlaps with Montana's Bitterroot Wilderness on the boundary between two of the least populated states in the country.By the first week in July, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to unveil a draft of the proposed grizzly reintroduction plan, which could transplant as many as 15 bears to the heart of the largest wilderness complex in the country, covering nearly 22,000 square miles, during the next five years.As the centerpiece of this plan, the grizzlies are inspiring more than just fear. For concerned parties, ranging from Washington, D.C. environmentalists to county commissioners living on the outskirts of the big wild, emotions include excitement, anticipation, anxiety and no small amount of anger. With the specter of the lengthy, divisive and expensive process of returning grey wolves to their historic ranges in Yellowstone National Park and northern Idaho still lingering, many proponents of grizzly reintroduction are trying to figure out a way to head-off similar controversy.Judging from the early signs, however, they are having trouble avoiding strife.From the beginning, environmentalists have been haggling among themselves over the importance of maintaining the grizzlies' protected status under the federal Endangered Species Act. The reintroduction option apparently favored by the feds--an unlikely result of teamwork between conservation and timber industry groups--would create an experimental population, which doesn't share the same stringent protection of the law.Idaho's congressional delegation, the governor of the Potato State and Bitterroot Valley officials in Montana have all expressed their vehement opposition to any kind of reintroduction, regardless of how it is implemented. And questions, both political and scientific, persist as to the chances of grizzlies ever re-establishing populations that would allow them to continue living wildly in perpetuity.In the age of modern politics, traversing grizzly country can be a daunting proposition-and that's before the first bear has been tranquilized and tagged in anticipation of the peculiar homecoming scheduled to begin next year.There are experts, scientists like the University of California Santa Cruz's Edward Grumbine and National Geographic correspondent Doug Chadwick, who say that grizzlies have populated this continent much longer than most humans. There are even those who believe that bears led the first Asiatic travelers, who followed the animals in search of food, to Alaska and points beyond. The brown bear's ancestors, they say, crossed the Bering Land Bridge, and made their way down the West Coast of this continent about 250,000 years ago.From that point on, the bears have evolved into regional subspecies related to, yet distinct from, the Alaskan brown bear and its cousins, which still populate the Far Eastern taiga forests of Russia. By 1800, a mere 24 years after the United States declared independence from England, more than 100,000 bears are thought to have populated North America from Ontario across the Great Plains to the coast of Southern California.Large, adaptable and relatively fearless, bears have been a source of fascination for humans ranging from indigenous tribes, who revered the animal, to modern biologists, whose studies have yielded a great deal of understanding about bears' behavior.They are clever omnivores, opportunists on par with Old World apes and Homo sapiens, often traveling seasonal circuits to find meals which consist of plants, berries, fish and meat. Grizzlies must eat a tremendous amount each year in order to sleep through the winter.Male grizzlies are larger than their female counterparts, the largest in the lower 48 reaching a weight of 800 pounds or more. The females, slightly smaller, reproduce at an average rate of about one cub every three years. Outside of mating periods, the males are solitary, and the females tend to socialize only with their cubs.By the mid-1800s, much had changed for the grizzly. Trappers, hunters and explorers seeking wealth in the mountainous West began to have an impact on bear populations. And by the end of the last century, mining, logging and ranching were taking huge tolls on the once-vast populations of grizzly throughout the country.Today, south of Canada, conservationists say that up to 99 percent of the bear's habitat has been destroyed. Human activity during the last 100 years has brought bears, as well as other wildlife, into increasing conflict with people.As with wolves and bison, human interests have often won, leaving the bears with little choice but to avoid people or be killed. Best estimates, cited by government officials and conservationists alike, say that there may be 1,000 bears left in the continental United States, following the last 22 years of federally protected existence.The Endangered Species Act, meanwhile, mandates that the government must not only protect threatened and endangered species but, where possible, help them recover as well. What's more, the U.S. Forest Service, since the passage of the 1976 National Forest Management Plan, has been charged with maintaining plant and animal diversity, and viable populations of native vertebrates in America's woodlands.While these laws are less than perfect, and conform not only to biological statistics but also human values, they are the motivating force behind both the effort to bring back the wolf, as well as current plans to restore the grizzly to the woods it dominated over the centuries before the West was won.At stake, according to conservation biologists and fans of grizzly bears, is nothing less than the future of America's last wild places, and the health of the ecosystems which hold -- or have the potential to hold -- grizzlies. Simply put, they say, the griz sits at the top of the food chain, and if all the links are in place, the environmental integrity of that area can be considered secure.As the date approaches for the official unveiling of the federal government's draft environmental impact statement, the question for most is no longer whether bears will be relocated to the forests of Idaho, where no one has seen a brown bear since the 1950s, but how.At odds, in particular, are members of two camps, both based out of Missoula, Mont., a university town boasting as many conservationists per capita as anywhere in the United States. The first represents the ROOTS proposal, which was penned by the National Wildlife Federation, and represents a joint effort on the part of the timber industry and conservationists. The other is the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which drafted a Conservation Biology Alternative reflecting the group's long-standing fixation with habitat protection.The selling point for the ROOTS proposal, according to its supporters, is an innovative concept: allowing committees of local people to manage the reintroduced grizzlies. ROOTS, which stands for Resource Organization on Timber Supply, marks the culmination of a three-year effort by NFW lawyer Tom France, Defenders of Wildlife's Hank Fischer (who was a key player in wolf reintroduction), and members of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association.While the pairing of timber advocates and environmentalists may seem strange to some, senior NWF spokesman Ben McNitt says that the team was formed to avoid the pitfalls encountered during the effort to reintroduce wolves. At that time, ranchers and wilderness advocates found themselves strange bedfellows as they legally tag-teamed against the Defenders of Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife's efforts to import wolves from Canada.McNitt says that his group doesn't want to see another scene like that. He blames both the duration of the effort and the lack of consensus over how the wolves were to be reintroduced for the financial costs and hard feelings incurred."We have a chance to break that pattern and create a new pattern," McNitt says. "Wolf reintroduction left a lot of people out, and they wound up embittered and angry. We're trying to not repeat that litigious, time-consuming, expensive process."What the team has come up with instead, says McNitt, is a process that allows for the greatest amount of hands-on participation by the greatest number of people. The ROOTS proposal would include seven governor's appointees from Idaho, five from Montana, federal agents from Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service, as well as members of Montana and Idaho's wildlife agencies.McNitt doesn't say outright that the plan also brings to the table the biggest potential opponent to the grizzly reintroduction. The timber industry could stage an offensive that would dwarf anything thrown at the feds by ranchers in the last reintroduction go-round. Many conservationists fear that, when the governors of Idaho and Montana sit down to name the management committee members, the timber industry will be over-represented.But McNitt points to a recent poll sponsored by the Defenders of Wildlife and NWF. Released on June 11 in Boise, Idaho the poll sought "to assess public opinions and attitudes towards reintroduction of grizzly bears," and concluded that "more Idaho and Montana citizens support than oppose restoring grizzly bears... and that support increases significantly under a plan for citizen management of grizzly restoration."At press time, the federal government seemed likely to choose the ROOTS proposal as its preferred method for bringing back the grizzlies.The executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Mike Bader, wasn't among the 254 citizens polled concerning the ROOTS proposal. And depending on how you look at it, that may have been a good thing, because Bader doesn't express much confidence in citizen management teams."There's a lot of quackery in this ROOTS proposal," Bader says. "Management by a timber industry-dominated committee doesn't help bears."Bader goes on to explain that from his perspective, the ROOTS proposal looks like an attempt to "buy off" the industry. His words are sharp, and evidently meant to provoke a response; for Bader, allowing the grizzlies to be managed as an experimental population, so that they lose their protections under the ESA and related laws, qualifies as a crime."The timber industry and dependent communities," he says, "are trying to get in one last hurrah at the expense of our biodiversity. This is their big prize. Grizzlies are a sensitive species, and the Forest Plan ought to include them. But under this proposal they wouldn't get consideration."Bader has a vested interest in this debate. He's got a proposal on the table, the Conservation Biology Alternative, which substitutes a scientific committee for the citizens' committee, and calls for expanded habitat preservation and full protection for any transplanted grizzly bears under federal law.As the name makes clear, the "Conservation Biology Alternative for Grizzly Bear Reintroduction" uses the tenets of conservation biology, a 30-year-old discipline for looking at extinction, diversity and biological preservation.The job of the conservation biologist, in part, is to look at ways that humanity can avoid wiping out entire species--including grizzly bears. This field was pioneered partially by Michael Soule', who has signed on as a supporter of the Alliance's proposal.Soule' writes in an introduction to Ed Grumbine's book, Ghost Bears, that lack of genetic diversity is going to make preservation increasingly problematic. "As the number of Americans inches toward a half-billion by 2150," he says, "and as our species balloons by a billion every eight years, it becomes difficult to imagine a quick fix for the extinction crisis."We will face management problems on a qualitatively different scale than in the past. Ecologists cannot predict which genes, which populations, and which combinations of species will fit the future, re-combined biotic systems."The grizzlies in the U.S. have already been separated into virtual biological islands. With so little of the large-scale habitat the bears need to live, there is a good chance that they will go extinct unless the groups in Glacier, the Canadian Rockies and potentially the Salmon-Selway can interbreed--or so goes the logic of Soule', Bader and many conservation biologists.Those who have expressed support for the Alliance alternative include scientists like pioneering wildlife biologists Derek and John Craighead, respected bear specialist Charles Jonkel, Ed Grumbine and many others. These men (they are for the most part men) are among the most respected bear experts in the world.They say that the idea of maintaining wilderness corridors along which distinct bear populations can travel is at least as important as placing the bears back in their original range. Bears, they point out, do not breed as prodigiously as wolves; their recovery, therefore, will take longer. It could take 100 years, some say, before the bears achieve a population stable enough to ensure their continued existence in the lower 48.If the habitat is there, Bader says, bears will use it. And if they can use it, so can many other forest denizens, ranging from the endangered bull trout to a variety of small and not-so-small animals, including black bears, elk and wolverines.Without a place for the griz, he says, these other creatures may not survive either. And, according to Bader and the conservation biology crowd, there's a good reason to want to maintain biodiversity in America's forests, because without it, we may not be able to continue living ourselves.Despite these sorts of dire warnings, there are those who don't believe that the grizzly has the social, environmental or economic value to deserve such prioritization.These people, including many elected officials, have lived in the West for most of their lives. Separated by about 400 miles, Idaho Gov. Phil Batt and Ravalli Valley County Commissioner Jerry Allen both have voiced loud and unequivocal opposition to any sort of reintroduction effort.Likewise, Idaho GOP Congress members Jack Kempthorne and Helen Chenoweth have been very critical, as have the members of Montana's congressional delegation, especially Republican freshman Rep. Rick Hill.Commissioner Allen says that the bruins are neither welcome nor needed in his backyard mountain range, the Bitterroots. He says there are populations of grizzlies throughout Western Montana, from the Kootenai National Forest in the northwestern corner of Montana down through the Mission Mountains on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Likewise, Allen notes, the bears populate the famed Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, as well as the Yellowstone and Glacier national parks."They're just not needed here," Allen says. "What happens when they come down into the valley? I'm worried about livestock and about the safety of my neighbors."Even when pressed on seeming irrefutable truths, Allen seems to think of them as mere opinions. He genuinely fears bears and their appetites, and does not seem to have digested the literature which makes it clear that, in most cases, grizzlies pose only a small threat to people.Brown bears can smell carrion from a distance of seven miles, some scientists maintain, and they can smell a human from 5,000 feet upwind. With more than a million-and-a-half tourists using the bear-dense Glacier National Park annually (which certainly holds enough grizzlies to make encounters likely), one surmises--as bear experts such as Chuck Jonkel suggest--that most learn to stay away from people.In a January letter to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Idaho Gov. Batt states that "Idaho remains adamantly opposed to the reintroduction of grizzly bear to the Bitterroot ecosystem.... There are several reasons for my position."First, while I realize that reintroduction may be desirable in terms of speeding recovery, I know of no scientific data to demonstrate that it is necessary for the recovery and survival of grizzly bear in the lower 48 states."Second, reintroduction will pose a significant public safety risk for Idaho citizens, and the many tourists who visit our wilderness areas.... Third, the reintroduction has the potential to affect the social and economic stability of many of our rural communities by placing undue burdens and restrictions on our natural resource industries."Batt's strong feelings feed Mike Bader's suspicion that if the feds aren't careful, an individual or group could intentionally sabotage the effort to recover grizzly bears. "From a bear's eye view, I don't know if I'd rather be on a sinking ship or a shrinking island," he says."The governor of Idaho is definitely against grizzlies, which is a big problem. What's to stop him from pushing down the detonator, blowing up the project and calling it a failure?"NWF's Tom France doesn't mince words in dealing with either Bader or the anti-bear forces. "It all depends on whose paranoia you choose to believe," he says.France and McNitt paint a pretty rosy picture of the future. It's one with bears in the Salmon-Selway, and good-hearted, right-minded people making responsible choices about bear management. Education about bears is the key, they say, followed by a move to local control and strong citizen voices.Such a victory would be unprecedented, although conservationists who oppose reintroduction point out that it's certainly hard to see how such efforts benefit the bears any more than letting them recover naturally. It's not politically expedient to be sure, but the grizzlies, who survived on this continent with and without humans for 250,000 years, given enough time, enough space and enough habitat, might very well find their way back into the Salmon-Selway.As Bader points out: "No matter whose plan's picked, we'll all be pushing up daisies by the time we can really call them recovered."