Twenty-five years after grizzly bears were nearly exterminated in the Lower 48 states, the governmental body overseeing their protection is celebrating the bruin's gradual recovery in the West.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee will gather for its summer meeting Thursday and Friday at the Rich Ranch near Seeley Lake.
A public ceremony is scheduled Saturday at the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area off Highway 200.
Among the agenda items are bear spray, grizzlies' status in the Northern Rockies and North Cascades, and a new portable electric fence that can be set up around campsites.
Grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem are growing in numbers and range, but officials are concerned about an increase in human-bear conflicts and bear fatalities caused by road accidents, poaching and mistaken identification by hunters.
The IGBC, which includes federal and state wildlife and land management agencies, was created in 1983 to promote the recovery of grizzly bears and their habitat.
Since then, the estimated grizzly population in the continental U.S. has doubled from 650 to more than 1,200. All but a few dozen of those bears live in the Northern Rockies.
Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, said the IGBC has had a key role in the species' recovery. Servheen has led the nation's grizzly management efforts since 1981.
When Lewis and Clark explored the West in 1804-06, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies lived in the West, but hunting and poisoning drastically reduced their numbers before they were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1975.
Many federal and state agencies were not interested in grizzly recovery until 1983, when the U.S. Interior and Agriculture secretaries and the governors of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington signed a memorandum of understanding that created the IGBC.
What got their attention, Servheen said, was the bears' dismal status in Yellowstone National Park, where the number of adult female grizzlies had dropped to fewer than 30 and the total population to about 130.
Servheen said the commitment by top government leaders pushed their subordinates at the regional and state levels to support the Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery plan, which had been created in 1982.
"Most agencies figured it wasn't their problem back then, but over time they've put a huge amount of effort into habitat conservation and becoming more knowledgeable about bears," Servheen said.
"Rather than denying it's an issue or saying it's not their responsibility, they've built a foundation for cooperation and a higher purpose toward implementing the recovery plan," he said.
The IGBC's work over the years also has helped create public support for grizzlies, Servheen said.
Across the Northern Rockies, grizzlies are steadily increasing in number and repopulating areas where they disappeared 50 to 100 years ago.
The bears are so plentiful in the Yellowstone ecosystem, where they number about 650, that they were removed from federal protection last year.
But Servheen said the bears, which reproduce slowly, have a long way to go. The biggest threats are human population growth, residential development, highways and global warming, which are fragmenting the landscape, creating more bear-human conflicts and changing vegetation that all wildlife depends on.
A shortage of money for grizzly conservation also is a problem.
"There's this misconception in Yellowstone that everything's been accomplished, but recovery just gets us to the point of institutionalizing care," Servheen said. "It actually increases the need for research, monitoring and management."
The bruin's fate depends on "people who live, work and recreate in grizzly bear habitat," Servheen said. "It's their activities that decide whether the grizzly will live or die."
A public celebration of grizzly bear recovery efforts is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area off Highway 200. For more information, go to www.igbconline.org.