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Forest management activities haven't degraded existing grizzly bear habitat

The Bitterroot Mountains have 7.8 million acres of secure roadless habitat for grizzly bears, "some of the best - if not the best - grizzly habitat in the lower 48," according to a report released Wednesday by Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation.

"We have a remarkable opportunity," said Hank Fischer, regional representative for Defenders of Wildlife and an author of the grizzly bear reintroduction proposal favored by the federal government.

Habitat security is better in the Bitterroot than in either the Yellowstone or northern Continental Divide ecosystems, Fischer said. "What's surprising is that the opportunity for a healthy bear population is probably superior in the Bitterroot than in places where we have worked on habitat for 20 years."

"If grizzly bears can survive in Yellowstone and the northern Continental Divide, they can certainly do so in the Bitterroot ecosystem," said Sterling Miller, a wildlife biologist for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula.

The conservationists' report, written by environmental consultant Steve Thompson, looked at the two national forests in central Idaho where bears might disperse after their release in the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas.

The question: Would logging and road building in the Nez Perce and Clearwater national forests render those places unsuitable for grizzly bears?

The answer: No. Over the past 12 years, forest management activities have not degraded the existing grizzly bear habitat, the report said. In fact, habitat security is likely to improve under the U.S. Forest Service's current management.

"Current forest management activities and trends in the Bitterroot ecosystem are compatible with grizzly recovery," the report said. "Although national forest plans from the 1980s projected logging and road construction activities that would have reduced roadless security on the edges of the wilderness core, these activities have occurred at only a small fraction of projected levels."

The 1988-1998 management plan for the Clearwater National Forest projected a timber cut of 730 million board feet on 530,000 acres of roadless land. The reality was a total cut of 52 million board feet, or 7 percent of the projected. And road construction averaged 27 percent of the projected total.

On the Nez Perce National Forest, the management plan projected a timber cut of 324 million board feet off 359,000 acres of roadless land. The true cut was 59 million board feet, or 18 percent of the projected total. Road construction averaged less than six miles per year over the past five years.

The trend now, the report continued, is "toward a net increase in secure habitat as old roads are obliterated, primarily for watershed and fisheries restoration."

From 1994 to 1999, just 13 miles of new roads were built on the Clearwater forest, while 211 miles of roads were obliterated. On the Nez Perce forest, 36 miles of roads were obliterated.

"Forest officials believe future management will include fewer roads, more selective logging and a primary emphasis on restoring watershed integrity and ecological processes," the report said. "For grizzly bears, this management approach appears likely to maintain existing core security areas while potentially improving or sustaining habitat conditions."

The director of a conservation group with a rival bear reintroduction plan provided the counterpoint to the report's optimism.

Said Mike Bader, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies: "The Forest Service still plans to log. These national forests have been battlegrounds for the past decade. The cut didn't fall short of projections because the Forest Service changed its mind. It fell short because activists didn't let them cut as much."

There is nothing in the federal government's preferred alternative for reintroducing grizzlies to the Bitterroot that protects bear habitat, according to Bader, whose group wants grizzlies reintroduced with full protection as threatened species over a wide area of western Montana and central Idaho.

The government's preference would give the bears somewhat less protection as an "experimental" population managed by citizens from the two states.

"We don't want to gamble with grizzly bears," Bader said. "We want them protected."

"The protection is there," replied Fischer, from Defenders of Wildlife.

"This report underscores the critical difference between restoring the Bitterroot's grizzlies and restoring many other endangered species," he said. "The Bitterroot's bears weren't eliminated because their habitat was destroyed, but rather because humans killed them. That's a far easier problem to fix."

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