MISSOULA, Mont. -- Is there room for bears in a crowded world?
Experts around the globe can be found brooding over the unfavorable mathematics: at the approach of the 21st century, there are fewer bears remaining on the planet than there are people in San Diego or Phoenix. Every four days the world adds more people than there are surviving bears. Today, six of eight species of the animals are declining in numbers, sometimes frighteningly so, as the human population increases.
So, will there be a place for bears in the future?
Probably not. But then again . . . maybe. So say the experts.
"We're running out of habitat because there are just too damned many two-legged bears. We're doing to the grizzly in North America what the grizzly did to those bears before it. We're a better species and we're wiping them out," says Charles Jonkel, a Montana zoologist and co-founder of the International Conference on Bear Research and Management.
"We're going to lose all the bears," Mr. Jonkel continues. "It's just a matter of time. The world is getting poorer and more crowded. And that makes people ornery. And there's nothing on God's green Earth we can do about it."
It's not altogether natural, however, for naturalists to surrender a cause while the Earth still grows green. Not without a fight.
And so when the world's most distinguished 450 ursine scientists and advocates gathered here recently, some hope brightened the gloom. It was the ninth such gathering of world experts in a quarter century. Maybe there will be time for nine more, or 90. No one was taking bets.
"If I want to know how the bears are doing, I ask, 'How are the people doing?' They are indicator species for each other. When the people are struggling you can pretty much figure the bears are, too. When people are crowded, same with the bears. What's good habitat for loggers is good habitat for bears; when the loggers start running out of trees, the bears are in trouble."
The country philosopher is Lance Olsen, the leader of the Montana-based Great Bear Foundation, an organization devoted to trying to save North America's grizzly bears, which are known elsewhere in the world as brown bears.
Like many of the other experts, Mr. Olsen can argue the future either way. The very thing that is so troubling -- the scarcity of bears and places for them to roam -- offers the hope now for saving them. They have become valuable because they are so few. And they are valuable not just for themselves. They have come to symbolize the shrinking domain of healthy forests, clean water, wildness and freedom.
"This planet is becoming so small and people are realizing if they wreck it, there is nowhere else to go. Like many human emotions, this doesn't come out until what you have is almost gone," said Christopher Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the foremost bear experts in the world.
He is co-chairman of bear research for the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In the spring of 1993, his group plans to publish an action plan for saving the world's bears.
Many of the scientists think the benchmark test looms just outside of town here, in the great remaining wild tracts of the Rocky Mountains.
Barely 100 years ago, the mountains and the plains extending in both directions, from the Pacific Coast into the Midwest, were home to 50,000 or more grizzlies. Today there are fewer than 1,000 -- maybe far fewer -- in isolated high-mountain pockets of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and maybe in the Cascades of Washington.
For 11 years, the federal government has been trying to preserve these bears. They have become the most heavily managed in the world. The cost has been about $1 million a year, or more than $1,000 per bear. Literally hundreds of scientists and activists are devoted to the cause.
Most of the leading experts on the future of the grizzly in the Lower 48 states say this: If the United States -- with its growing environmentalist movement, with still-unspoiled space for bears, with its affluence, and with the energy of its federal government -- cannot preserve an endangered bear, what country can?
City dwellers may hold the key. Scientists like Stephen R. Kellert of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies say that government officials in the West have been "far too conservative" in rallying urban support for efforts to save bears. Mr. Kellert's studies show that wildlife has many friends and few critics in the cities -- an abstract kinship, perhaps, but a passionate one.
Rural areas adjacent to the remaining bear sanctuaries, on the other hand, generate significant land-user opposition to protecting both habitat and the bears themselves. And to date, that is where most of the public hearings and political decisions about bear conservation are made.