Government reassures residents about bringing bears to Idaho

September 27, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

SELWAY-BITTERROOT WILDERNESS, Idaho -- Old-timers never strolled here as people do now, heedless and blithe through head-high huckleberries.

Back when this wilderness was truly wild, a prudent traveler passed here like a soldier walking point. A blur of tawny motion, a rustling sound, might be the only warning:

Grizzly bear.

A quarter-ton of muscle, scythe-shaped claws and racehorse speed. Near-sighted eyes, sharp nose and sharper wits. To stumble on a grizzly in these canyons was to know, with pounding heart, what it meant to be at a stronger creature's mercy.

Jack Hogg would like that knowledge to return to these mountains, along with the hunchbacked bear. "We humans need to know that we're not at the top of the food chain," the biologist said, "that there's something bigger, stronger and tougher than us."

Seventy years after the last grizzly was shot here, the federal government is poised to grant Hogg's wish.

The big bear that once ruled the West from Canada to Mexico is now threatened with extinction in the lower 48 states, reduced to perhaps 800 specimens in three isolated preserves. To reverse the decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to bring Canadian grizzlies into this 6,000-square-mile protected wilderness along the Idaho-Montana border.

It's a daring move in Idaho, a state where the 1995 reintroduction of wolves provoked a furor and a few wolf shootings; where anti-federal billboards are posted along the interstate; where Gov. Phil Batt's response is "no bears, no way" and Rep. Helen Chenoweth calls the idea as crazy as "bringing back sharks to the beach."

Two-thirds of Idahoans like the idea, according to a state poll. But those who don't include folks in the powerful timber industry. Their worry: along with the bear come Endangered Species Act protections that could curtail logging in the surrounding national forests.

"They're not afraid of the bear," said government scientist Chris Servheen. "They're afraid of the lawyers."

To defang opponents, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to do something that's never been tried before: give local folks control over the fate of the introduced bears. The agency is also prepared to waive regulations that might restrict nearby logging.

The plan was hatched by an unlikely coalition of Rocky Mountain conservationists and timber executives. Backers say it's the only way to persuade people in the towns fringing the wilderness to lay down their guns and their lawsuits.

"What we have to do is build support for bears," said Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "If you put these animals in there and say, 'OK, here they are, and with the bears come all these restrictions,' the response is, 'Get lost.'"

But others think the idea is "a death sentence for the bears," in the words of John W. Craighead, member of a family of scientists who have studied grizzlies since the 1950s. To survive, he said, the bears must have full legal protection and a big, road-free buffer zone that keeps them far away from people defenses the proposed plan does not provide.

"This is a big step, and it is risky," said Michael Roy of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the conservation groups backing the new approach. "I think we only have one shot at this. If this fails, I don't think there'll ever be another citizen management committee."

Like most to-the-death struggles, the conflict between people and grizzlies is so intense because the combatants are so much alike. Both are hunter-gatherers willing to eat almost anything tubers, berries, grubs and snails, salmon, venison. Both need lots of elbow room. Both are smart enough to adapt quickly to changes, and that makes them unpredictable.

"We're natural competitors. We're both omnivores and we're both large," said Dave Mattson, a grizzly bear expert at the University of Idaho. "So there is some intractable level of conflict no matter what we do."

The danger is greater for bears than for people. In heavily traveled Yellowstone National Park, three people were injured by grizzlies in 1995, while nine grizzlies died three electrocuted by a downed power line, six shot by hunters or animal-control officers.

"The pre-eminent requirement for grizzly bears is that there be damned few people," preferably unarmed, said Mattson.

Fish and Wildlife Service experts think the Selway-Bitterroot and adjacent Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness fit that bill. They want to release three to five bears yearly for five years, beginning as early as next July.

Free of roads and settlements, off-limits to all but hikers, river rafters and horseback explorers, the land is a mosaic of forests, alpine meadows and glacial lakes. It seems rich in the resources bears need.

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