SUMMARY: The administration could abandon efforts to restore grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot, but not without hypocrisy.

The U.S. Department of Interior is revisiting the question of whether to reintroduce grizzly bears in the Selway-Bitterroot, casting a shadow of doubt over an exhaustively researched and almost interminably debated decision announced last November by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The grizzly reintroduction plan undoubtedly joins a raft of Clinton-era environmental policies the Bush administration might wish to reverse. But in this case, the administration would have to override some of the president's own publicly stated principles to scrap the grizzly reintroduction plan.

The Selway-Bitterroot is historical range for the grizzly bear, an animal classified as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. The last known Bitterroot grizzly was killed in 1932. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to begin transplanting to the Selway-Bitterroot grizzlies captured from other areas starting next year. The idea is to speed up what wildlife managers hope would happen naturally over time through migration - restoration of a new population of grizzlies to further reduce their chance of eventual extinction in the lower 48 states.

The plan is vehemently opposed by Idaho's Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, whose entreaties have triggered Interior Secretary Gale Norton's review.

But didn't President Bush recently tell us - in defending suspension of new arsenic standards for drinking water - that he wanted his environmental policies based on sound science, not politics?

The science here is clear: The Selway-Bitterroot is historic grizzly habitat, it's capable of supporting a good number of bears, and adding the bears will help bolster efforts to recover the species. Scientists have researched the issues, their work has been documented, challenged and confirmed. The only real contention among scientists seems to be whether the reintroduction plan goes far enough in terms of restrictions to protect the bears and designating sufficient area where bears would be encouraged to roam.

And hasn't the president also preached allegiance to "the rule of law?"

The Endangered Species Act requires the government to come up with a recovery plan for threatened and endangered species, based on the best science. First developed in the early 1980s and revised in 1993, the recovery plan for grizzlies lists the Selway-Bitterroot-Salmon region among six areas where grizzlies are to be "conserved." The law defines "conserve" as meaning "use all the methods and procedures which are necessary to bring any endangered species or threatened species to the point at which the measures … are no longer necessary."

Unless Congress first repeals or amends the Endangered Species Act, abandoning grizzly reintroduction will make mockery of "the rule of law."

Finally, we have the president's oft-stated desire to shift significant decision-making authority away from bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., to citizens at the local level.

The grizzly reintroduction plan incorporates an innovative, albeit controversial element: Management of the project is to be directed by a committee of citizens. This represents a major departure in endangered species management, one that seems to mesh well with the president's principles. But if the reintroduction plan is scrapped, the citizen management committee goes with it. Bush won't be president forever. You can bet some future administration will resurrect the idea of restoring grizzlies where the best science says they belong. But don't count on the citizens' committee - reviled by some environmental groups - being part of the package.

The decision to restore grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot wasn't made hastily or carelessly. Bill Clinton had nothing to do with it. It was based on the best science and made with the benefit of extensive public scrutiny and comment. It's a conservative plan in every sense of the word. In reviewing the plan, let's hope Norton does more than respond to complaints from the Idaho governor and other critics. Let's hope she takes a close look at the plan itself - and takes into account President Bush's stated principles.

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