Bear Knuckles 

Meet the newest member of Missoula’s conservation community

The newest addition to Missoula’s conservation community got off to a rocky start with his colleagues a couple weeks ago by showing up as the keynote speaker at an anti-grizzly bear rally in Salmon, Idaho.

That Steve Mealey would appeal to a crowd of bear-bashers was not a shock to Missoula conservationists. But they were surprised to learn that Mealey had landed in Missoula after being fired recently as director of Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game. The Missoula-based Boone and Crockett Club has contracted him as its chief administrator.

“The Boone and Crockett Club is kind of a staid, conservative wildlife group,” says Mike Bader, director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “I’m surprised that someone as controversial as Steve Mealey would show up with a group as prestigious as Boone and Crockett.”

However, Bader and others say that Mealey’s appearance at the Sept. 29 rally was in character for the headline-grabbing, politically ambitious wildlife biologist. As a timber-friendly forest supervisor on the Boise National Forest in the mid-1990s, Mealey was dubbed the “Butcher of the Boise” by environmentalists.

During his stormy two-year stint at Idaho Fish and Game, Mealey’s policies and style earned him the enmity of hunters and non-hunters alike. He was suspended for two weeks for dropping his pants and “mooning” the Lake Pend Oreille shoreline from a Fish and Game Commission party boat. A year ago, Fish and Game supervisors compiled a 52-point list of staff complaints. He was fired in March.

“On a personal level, he’s a friendly, jovial person,” Bader says. “But on conservation issues, he’s consistently been inflammatory and negative.”

Tom France, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation agrees. “He seems to be more a force of divisiveness than for finding common ground,” he says.

Mealey, however, doesn’t see it that way. In fact, he told me, he tried to be a voice of moderation at the Salmon rally, where angry Idahoans fulminated that grizzly bears would devastate their livelihoods and threaten their children.

“Personally, I love grizzly bears,” said Mealey, a former grizzly researcher. “But I can’t support grizzly reintroduction unless there’s far greater public support. This is not about being against grizzlies. Rather, it’s about being for our democratic institutions of collaboration.”

Mealey’s rhetorical embrace of collaboration rings hollow for France. Over the past several years, the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife have joined forces with Idaho timber companies and workers to push a precedent-setting “citizen management” proposal. Their plan has become the federal government’s preferred alternative for the reintroduction of grizzlies, which were eliminated from the Bitterroot Mountains by bullet and poison.

The coalition of bear advocates and lumbermen proposes that reintroduced grizzlies be managed by a citizen committee appointed by governors of Idaho and Montana. It would be left to the citizen committee whether to recommend additional habitat protection outside the 4 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church wilderness areas.

Although the Citizen Management Plan is opposed by many grizzly bear advocates, including Bader, as not guaranteeing full protection for bears, Governor Marc Racicot lauded the plan as a “significant departure” from the feds’ standard way of doing business. Critics of the Endangered Species Act should put aside past frustrations and embrace this new local/federal partnership, Racicot said in 1997.

Unlike Racicot, Mealey isn’t an attorney, but he has a very different legal interpretation. “I’ll tell you why Racicot and I disagree,” Mealey said last week. “I don’t believe federal authority can legally be delegated. Local people who think they’re empowered [by this plan] aren’t really being empowered.”

At the Salmon rally, Mealey leveled his biggest volleys against a ruthless federal government. “The ESA [Endangered Species Act] does not provide for compromise,” he emphasized to the receptive crowd, which seemed to want to believe in federal tyranny.

France, however, says that Mealey’s opposition to the Citizen Management Plan creates a self-fulfilling prophesy about an inflexible federal government. France and federal attorneys believe the ESA provides sufficient legal room for the Citizen Management Plan.

Despite his harsh attitude about federal relations with state governments, Mealey is widely rumored to covet the position of Forest Service Chief should a Republican president be elected in 2000. Those rumors were fueled by Mealey’s appearance at the high-profile Salmon rally.

I asked Mealey about his interest in the top Forest Service position. After a long, considered pause he replied, “I love the Forest Service with all my heart and soul. I’ll just leave it at that.”

But while Mealey might be accused of walking a fine line between professional integrity and political pandering, Bader commends him for his blunt opinions and occasionally uninhibited behavior.

“I’ll give him credit—no pun intended—for letting it all hang out,” Bader says.

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