TOP SECRET ANIMAL ATTACK FILES
from New York Times
Bears Poised to Make a Comeback
Opponents Fear Bear Attacks; Advocates Fear for the Bears
May 30, 2000
By MARK DERR
From any perspective, the remote, rugged country surrounding the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana and central Idaho appears ideal for grizzly bears. It has the types of terrain grizzlies love: alpine meadows; pine, cedar and fir forests; glacial lakes and fast-running streams flowing into lush river valleys.
Although salmon have declined sharply, the roots, berries, nuts, elk, deer and insects the giants need to fuel their six-month hibernation abound.
Indeed, hundreds of the big bears that the Nez Perce tribe called xaxat roamed this area when Lewis and Clark passed through in 1806, killing seven. In the next decades, hundreds of grizzlies fell to hunters, with the last recorded kill in 1932. Despite several exhaustive surveys, no one has seen a grizzly bear in this region for more than half a century.
That situation is about to change. This summer, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to adopt a controversial plan to put grizzly bears back in the Bitterroot region. A 15-member citizen management committee will be charged with finding a way for the bears to flourish and coexist with humans, particularly those engaged in backcountry recreation, logging, mining and ranching.
If threatened Congressional and legal challenges from Idaho do not delay the plan from being carried out, the management committee will complete preparations for the arrival of the first bears in 2002, said Dr. Christopher Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, based in Missoula, Mont. Over five years, at least 25 bears will be released in the Bitterroots. Because of the grizzly's slow reproductive rate, it will take 50 to 110 years for the population to reach the project's goal of 280 bears.
Dr. Servheen said the reintroduction was an essential step in ensuring the long-term survival of the grizzly in the lower 48 states and its removal from the endangered species list, where it has been designated as "threatened" since 1975.
Like the wolves released in Yellowstone National Park and these same Bitterroots in 1995 and 1996, the grizzlies will be relocated as a "nonessential experimental population" under the Endangered Species Act. That designation makes it easier to remove bears that come into conflict with people or fail to thrive. It also allows officials to suspend habitat protections that ordinarily apply to endangered species, thereby giving them greater flexibility in dealing with land-use conflicts.
"We know enough about the biology of bears to manage them," Dr. Servheen said. "The limiting factor is the behavior of people. We have to strike a balance between the needs of bears and the needs of people." Finding that balance is the task of the citizen management committee, appointed by the secretary of the interior, and made up of local people from Montana and Idaho, the Nez Perce tribe, the National Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
North America's largest carnivore, the grizzly bear is a figure of legendary might.
A subspecies of the brown bear named for its silver-tipped guard hairs, which appeared "grizzly" to early explorers, it stands up to seven-feet tall and weighs 300 to 600 pounds, with some reaching 800 or more pounds. Highly protective of their food and young, aggressive in response to surprises, and solitary by habit, the big bears are often considered dangerously antisocial.
Grizzly bears are relatively abundant in parts of Canada and Alaska, but in the western United States, where Dr. Servheen estimates that 50,000 roamed at the time of Lewis and Clark's expedition, they number fewer than 1,000 and occupy only about 2 percent of their original range. The remaining bears are largely concentrated in and around Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Wildlife biologists have long recommended establishing another population of bears in the Bitterroot region to lessen the risk of extinction and ultimately provide a vital genetic link between the geographically isolated grizzlies in Yellowstone and those farther north. The grizzlies are also expected to improve the health of the Bitterroot ecosystem. The region contains the largest expanse of contiguous federal lands in the lower 48 states, covering some 26,000 square miles, and includes two vast roadless areas, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, which are considered ideal for grizzly bears, whose home territory can reach 500 square miles.
Bears for the reintroduction will be taken from Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park and Canada. The bears are expected to adjust without much difficulty, unless they run afoul of humans; 79 percent of grizzlies that die prematurely do so at the hands of humans, said Dr. David Mattson, a wildlife biologist with the United States Geological Survey's Biological Resources Division in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Many opponents of the reintroduction plan fear grizzly attacks, a possibility that most bear biologists consider remote, especially in the first years of the project. Dr. Stephen Herrero, an emeritus professor of environmental science at the University of Calgary and a leading expert on bear attacks, said, "There are 700,000 black bears and 70,000 grizzly bears in North America and on average they kill three people a year and injure a dozen to two dozen. People fear these animals because they can be violent and cause injury or death, but once people know about bears, they can respect them and live with them without danger."
All the reintroduced bears will be equipped with radio collars so that wildlife biologists can monitor their health and movements, Dr. Servheen said. The citizen management committee and wildlife officials will also work to allay people's fear of bears and to prevent the sorts of situations and conflicts that lead to the deaths of bears or people.
Establishment of the citizen management committee represents a triumph for a coalition consisting of the Resource Organization on Timber Supply, a group of timber companies and unions with headquarters in Lewiston, Idaho; the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; the National Wildlife Federation; and Defenders of Wildlife.
In 1995, that coalition presented the concept to Dr. Servheen and the grizzly bear recovery team as a way to allow logging, recreation and other activities to continue in the company of bears.
The Fish and Wildlife Service embraced the idea, which was hailed nationally as a sign that a new spirit of cooperation was taking hold in the West after years of bitter conflict over land use and the Endangered Species Act. Despite a poll showing that a vast majority of people regionally and nationally wanted grizzlies, the plan was immediately caught in the sort of fierce political struggle it was intended to prevent.
A number of environmental groups oppose the plan, and have proposed an alternative plan for the grizzlies.
"This plan is not the best we could do for bears," said Mike Bader, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which is based in Missoula, Mont. He said the plan went too far in accommodating the timber industry and not far enough in protecting grizzly bears and their habitat.
Anti-bear groups and a majority of the region's political leaders complain that because the grizzly is not at immediate risk of extinction, the federal government is needlessly unloosing a predator that is a threat to humans. They also contend that because the citizen management committee must report to the secretary of the interior, who has legal authority for endangered species, the plan does not cede enough control to state and local officials.
The Idaho Congressional delegation has worked for several years to block the reintroduction, and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has publicly threatened to file suit to stop it. Bill Mulligan, president of Three Rivers Timber Inc., of Kamiah, Idaho, and co-chairman of the Resource Organization on Timber Supply, said that anger over the Clinton Administration's roadless plan for national forests and proposals to restore the salmon and steelhead trout runs on the Snake River had stirred anti-government sentiment.
People have directed their anger and alienation over those issues at the timber industry and the union groups backing the grizzly reintroduction, making it difficult for them to rally support. "We get beat up pretty bad at public hearings on grizzlies," Mr. Mulligan said. "But we made a deal with the best of intentions and so we have stuck to it."
Alone among prominent officials in Montana and Idaho, Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana has supported the reintroduction plan, while negotiating on questions relating to the powers of the citizen management committee, financing and the health and source of the bears.
"The citizen management committee offers a new opportunity to engage people who live next door to these truly majestic animals, to see whether people can take charge and get involved in a thoughtful and meaningful way in the process of preserving endangered species," Governor Racicot said.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company