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Grizzlies OK'd for Bitterroot

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Idaho threatens lawsuit; Montana considers options

Grizzly bears will again inhabit the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana and central Idaho, carried back to the wilderness by the U.S. government after more than a half-century's absence. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention Thursday to release five grizzly bears into the Bitterroot backcountry for each of five years beginning in 2002, and to give their management to a committee of citizens.

"Wilderness, to be whole, needs all its native species," said Chris Servheen, the federal government's grizzly bear recovery coordinator.

More than 50,000 grizzly bears once inhabited the West; in all but 2 percent of their former territory, they were hunted to extinction. Grizzlies were widespread in the Bitterroots, wandering back and forth across the Salmon River and over the millions of acres that are now called the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas.

The last verified death of a grizzly bear in the Bitterroot Mountains was in 1932. The last tracks of a Bitterroot grizzly were seen in 1946. They are gone, Servheen said, "because we killed them" - for sport, for fur and to eliminate the threat they posed to humans and livestock.

They were controversial then and now.

Thursday's announcement brought an immediate threat of legal action from Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "I oppose bringing these massive, flesh-eating carnivores into Idaho," the governor said in a written statement released by his office. "This is perhaps the first federal land management action in history likely to result in injury or death of members of the public."

Kempthorne said release of the official "record of decision" calling for the bear's reintroduction left him with "no choice but to explore all legal options available to the state to stop this ill-conceived proposal."

In Montana, a spokeswoman for Gov. Marc Racicot was more guarded in her remarks. The governor, she said, will study the record of decision before reaching any conclusions. "There are a lot of unknowns," said Julie Lapeyre, Racicot's natural resources policy adviser. "One of the biggest ones is funding. How are they going to pay for reintroduction?"

Racicot is, however, "very supportive of the citizen management committee as a new and innovative way of dealing with endangered species issues," Lapeyre said. "The governor is an advocate of strong local control."

The Bitterroot reintroduction will be managed by a first-of-its-kind, 15-member committee of citizens nominated by the governors of Idaho and Montana and the Nez Perce Tribe, then appointed by the secretary of Interior. The citizens will decide how many grizzly bears are needed to restore a healthy population in the Bitterroots. They will also decide when to move - or remove - problem bears.

"The whole idea is that if the average person has a concern about bears, there is someone on the committee who they know and can talk to," said Hank Fischer, northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife and member of a coalition of environmental, timber industry and union groups that suggested the citizen-management approach.

"It localizes the decision-making and the information-sharing. It reduces a lot of the conflict over bear management," he said. "I am as enthused about this project as any that I have been involved with in the past 20 years. If you give local people the authority, I believe they will act responsibly. Yes, it's an experiment. It hasn't been tried before in endangered-species management. Yes, we are all going to watch anxiously to see what happens."

Servheen, who normally would be responsible for the bears' day-to-day management, said he is excited about sharing the work with local citizens. "The future of bears," he said, "is not going to be built on regulations from the federal government. The future of bears is going to be built by people who live, work and recreate in grizzly bear habitat.

"Giving local people ownership of the issue should provide more security and well-being for grizzly bears. It has the potential to ensure a much more secure future."

The Bitterroot reintroduction also will be unusual in its designation of grizzlies as a "nonessential experimental population" - a less protective designation that allows more flexible management, including a zero-tolerance policy if grizzlies stray onto the Bitterroot Valley floor.

"Bears will not be tolerated on private land in the Bitterroot Valley," Servheen said. "People don't want bears in the valley, and neither do we."

Beginning in the summer of 2002, Servheen will release five bears for each of five years into the Frank Church and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses. They will come, he said, from either Canada, interior Alaska, the Yellowstone ecosystem or the northern Rocky Mountains. They will not, he promised, be "problem bears" known for past run-ins with humans or livestock.

"This whole reintroduction will be a very gradual thing," Servheen said. "It will be decades before there are very many bears in there. Full recovery - 280 or 300 bears - won't happen for 50 or 100 years."

Grizzly bears must be restored to the Bitterroots, though, if the species is to be recovered and removed from the endangered species list, Servheen said. The wilderness of central Idaho and southwestern Montana is the largest block of wild country in the Rocky Mountains.

"And it is filled with all the things that bears want," he said. "The vegetation, the topography, the diversity of habitats and foods. And the huge block of undeveloped land. The Bitterroot ecosystem is the only piece of wild country left where we can re-establish grizzly bears."

"Yes, there are people on the edges, both left and right, conservative and liberal, who think this is a really bad idea," said Tom France, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula and another of the reintroduction proponents. "But I have confidence that most people, when they look at this thing, will say it's really worth a try."

Yes, it is worth a try, replied Mike Bader, executive director of Missoula's Alliance for the Wild Rockies. But it's worth a better try than the government is providing - one where grizzlies are given full protection under the Endangered Species Act and an even wider expanse of territory to roam.

"On the one hand, grizzlies really belong there and have a rightful place in that ecosystem," he said. "On the other hand, this reintroduction will return grizzlies under circumstances that we feel are inadequate and that set a bad precedent for bear recovery overall."

Bader said he worries about the citizen management committee, and whether its members will be true advocates of grizzly recovery. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., had questions of his own - about the committee and whether its power would be real or imaginary.

Burns reminded federal officials that he has always opposed the reintroduction because he believes the citizens of western Montana and central Idaho oppose the bears' return. The citizens committee is the only hope now for the people to be heard, the senator said.

The controversy, he said, did not end with Thursday's announcement.

Servheen agreed. "Nobody," he said, "has no opinion about grizzly bears."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com.

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