Bearing With It 

Bitterrooters grapple with the government’s decision to bring grizzly bears back to western Montana

The long-awaited decision on whether or not to repopulate the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness with its one missing species—grizzly bears—has finally been made, and to nobody’s surprise the decision is yes.

After years of study, contentious public meetings, thousands of letters and threats of lawsuits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to capture five grizzly bears each year for five years and relocate them to the heart of two wilderness areas that thousands of Bitterrooters think of as their backyard.

In the long years leading up to last week’s final decision, the Bitterroot Valley has been ground zero in the great battle for the griz, or, to some people’s way of thinking, the battle against the griz.

In numerous town meetings over the years, angry and passionate Bitterrooters eagerly lined up for a chance to weigh in with the federal officials soliciting public input. Everyone got an earful.

In meeting after meeting, speaker after speaker took to the microphone to convince and persuade, as passionately as possible, for or against the great bear. Opponents often began their spiels with, “I’m a fourth-generation Bitterrooter,” as if generational ties to the Bitterroot somehow carried more weight with the feds. Proponents, meanwhile, somewhat outnumbered by opponents, waxed poetic about the grizzly bear in sometimes highly emotional speeches read by people convinced that Bitterroot life was not complete without the presence of Ursus horribilis.

The numerous Bitterroot meetings held over the past decade were not well managed, though at times they were certainly entertaining. Speakers shook fists at the crowd; the crowd booed, applauded, laughed derisively; federal government officials lost their tempers with the public—a rare sight—and things frequently got out of control. It was all good theater, especially the moment when one man, a decided opponent, held up his little daughter before the crowd, identifying her as potential bear bait. The crowd ate it up.

And now that one battle has been fought, get ready for the second, as various groups and individuals jockey for a place on the citizens management committee—the first of its kind—that will manage the recovery effort. The Grizzly Details

Dr. Chris Servheen, the director of the grizzly bear recovery effort who earned the permanent contempt of the locals some years ago when he referred to both sides of the issue as “extremists,” says the first group of bears will be captured from the Yellowstone ecosystem, Canada, the Northern Rockies and interior Alaska. Those five bears will be transplanted in 2002, with the remaining 20 to be transplanted over the following four years.

This seed population of 25 bears will, bear biologists hope, produce the ultimate and desired population of between 280 and 300 grizzly bears in 50 to 100 years.

The draft environmental impact statement drew 25,000 comments; the final drew 14,812 written comments, with a whopping majority—14,091—supporting the agency’s five-bears-a-year plan, says Servheen.

The first transplants won’t be introduced to their new habitat until early summer 2002, not for the sake of the bears, but for the sake of the human inhabitants who must learn to coexist with grizzlies, says Servheen.

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to teach Bitterrooters and others who recreate in the backcountry how to live in grizzly bear country. Servheen says the recovery team will reach out to the public via the usual channels like service clubs such as the Kiwanis, outfitters and any and all backcountry users. And they’ll “bear-proof” several campsites by improving sanitation, which should benefit the easier-to-get-along-with black bears as well.

When the bears are finally released—and Servheen says when, not if—it will be to the “center” of the Selway-Bitterroot/Frank Church/River of No Return wilderness areas. When asked to pinpoint a drainage or precise location, however, he declines. The public will not be in on the exact location. “The bears need peace and quiet,” he says.

The bears also will be radio-collared, which somewhat belies the notion of a population of grizzly bears roaming wild and free in a wild and free land. Rather, it might create the impression that the Selway-Bitterroot is one large zoo, or perhaps a giant chessboard filled with, in the words of Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, “massive, flesh-eating carnivores”—albeit flesh-eating carnivores which can be moved around and tracked by their human masters.

Still, as Servheen points out, grizzly bears are slow to reproduce, typically giving birth to two cubs every three years. So keeping track via radio collars is the most sensible way to gauge the success of the program. “It would be nice if we can let them loose back there and see how they’re doing,” he says. Will Bitterrooters Have a Say?

Though radio collars aren’t a new concept in the endangered species game, citizens management committees certainly are. Grizzly bears, which are an officially threatened species, are the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act that will be released into the wild and managed by a citizens management group. Fifteen people will be chosen by the governors of Idaho and Montana and the Nez Perce tribe to manage the bears and decide the fates of “problem” bears. The Secretary of the Interior will appoint the committee based on the governors’ recommendations.

Though the citizens management committee has the support of two national environmental groups—Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation—as well as the support of Racicot, it’s an idea that doesn’t sit well with the Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), a grassroots environmental group that advocated greater protection for the transplanted bears than will be afforded them under the current recovery program.

Jim Olsen, FOB president, says the group, and he, personally, are vigorous opponents of the citizens management committee for several reasons. For one thing, he says, it allows the federal government to hand over its responsibility for land management to political appointees, all of whom will come to the table with their own, probably conflicting, agendas. “Basically, the federal government has found a way not to be responsible for their actions, by [giving way] to political appointees outside the agency. We feel that’s a bad precedent. If you can imagine managing every timber sale and mining operation by a citizens committee.”

Olsen fears the citizens management committee could well lead to similar committees being formed all over the west, making significant land management decisions for various projects proposed on public land. If that happens, he says, look for a resurgence of the so-called wise-use movement. “In a way,” he says, “it seems to be playing into the Sagebrush Rebellion.”

Such citizens groups can and have worked, however, Olsen says, listing the groups that have worked in the Bitterroot: the highway 93 design groups, the Bitterroot Water Forum and the Rye Creek land exchange.

“Those are three situations where folks who disagree with each other, vocally and a lot, came together to get things done,” he says.

What worked for all these groups is that anyone who was interested, and who agreed to be civil, was allowed to participate; there were no appointees. The other important factor was that they were advisory in nature, and were not decision-making groups, as the grizzly bear citizens management committee will be.

But Olsen saves most of his criticism for the two environmental groups he says forced the citizens management committee idea on the public and on less powerful grassroots organizations, like Friends of the Bitterroot. Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, he says, “focused on the opposition [the timber industry]” when it hammered out the committee idea, “and forgot to talk to their friends. Look at the missing names: the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association, the Idaho Conservation League. No grassroots organization signed on as far as I know. It’s a sham in terms of the claim that they worked to build consensus in rural communities. They didn’t.”

He says Friends of the Bitterroot suggested making the management committee strictly advisory, but the idea was rejected by Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation. “They said, ‘It’s a done deal. The board’s approved it. We’re not going to go back.’ It’s a bad idea and it’s being imposed on us by two national environmental groups. It’s like dealing with another bureaucracy.”

He takes particular offense at Defenders of Wildlife for calling Friends of the Bitterroot “radical.” He says it’s FOB that puts its collective neck on the chopping block time and again when it challenges the Forest Service and the timber industry. “We’ve been protecting the habitat and we’re taking the heat. You don’t see letters to the editor saying [National Wildlife Federation representative] Hank Fischer should go back to California,” Olsen notes. Local criticism, and heaps of it, is always directed at FOB, he says.

Olsen also worries that the committee will be made up of some people who are strictly volunteers and others who may be getting paid by their employers or union, either directly in cash or in comp time. And, he adds, there is no guarantee that any of the appointees will come from the Bitterroot Valley, the area likely to be most affected by the grizzly bear recovery effort.

One likely scenario, he says, is that Montana’s five appointees would be representatives from Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, two from the timber industry and the fifth from the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which is a requirement. Olsen can easily envision a Montana citizens committee that lacks any Bitterrooters managing bears in the Bitterroot wilderness areas.

“Those are the things we object to about this plan,” he says. “You won’t find anyone in Ravalli County who likes this plan. No one likes it.”

Smut Warren doesn’t like it either. Warren, who represents southern Ravalli County on the county commission, and who was voted out of office last June, has been an outspoken opponent of the grizzly bear recovery plan, and, like Olsen, doesn’t much care for the citizens management committee either.

Warren has a reputation for wanting to be liked by everyone (he plays Santa Claus every Christmas, temporarily abandoning his duties as county commissioner for the month of December). He tends not to be drawn into arguments, and often tries to joke his way out of political conflict. But grizzly bear recovery is where he draws the line on his Mr. Nice Guy act. Warren does not want grizzly bears in his or his constituents’ backyard, and for once he doesn’t mince his words about it.

“I definitely am opposed to it,” he says. “I feel that spending $180,000 to monitor one bear—that’s just part of the money—would be better spent on our senior citizens or our young people.”

Warren serves on the board of a Bitterroot Valley group called Concerned About Grizzlies which meets periodically to do little more than complain about what they see as the federal government’s latest folly. They fear that transplanted grizzly bears will lead to restrictions on public access of the forest, Warren says, and he worries that people who live adjacent to the forest boundary will lose their pets and livestock to marauding bears.

“One of the reasons [the group opposes grizzly reintroduction] is that they [the federal government] will make that a restricted area. We won’t be able to hunt or carry on timber operations. It’ll be just like the spotted owl. And you know the other reason. I don’t want them [grizzlies] going into people’s back yards and eating their animals.”

The final decision may spur the group to action, Warren says. Concerned About Grizzlies may join in with the governor of Idaho and his pending lawsuit to stop the reintroduction effort. “We’re probably going to go in with Idaho and with that lawsuit,” Warren says. “I think that’s in the process now.”

Warren says the group is working with two local attorneys to do whatever they can to stop a government program that was “jammed down our throats. We knew three or four years ago what was going on. I think we’re going to see more problems [with grizzlies] than they say.”Is It Really a Done Deal?

Though Olsen and Warren represent groups who hold strong opinions on the recovery effort, for and against, respectively, both are keeping an eye on the citizens management committee.

Olsen hasn’t committed to asking for a seat at the table; he’d have to think about it further, he says. If he applies, and is accepted, his first action will be to open it up to more interested citizens, including people who disagree with him about the recovery effort itself.

Warren says his group will likely seek a spot on the committee in the event that Kempthorne’s lawsuit fails and the recovery effort moves forward. Concerned About Grizzlies wants to cover all its bases, he says. “Even if we do sue, they [Fish and Wildlife Service] might win and we’d want to have input.”

Whether Gov. Marc Racicot or Governor-elect Judy Martz will do the choosing is anyone’s guess right now. Julie Lapeyre, a policy advisor to Racicot, says “very preliminary discussions” have taken place in the Capitol about the appointments. By the time the recovery project actually goes into effect, Racicot, a proponent of the citizens management committee, will have a scant two weeks left in his administration. At this writing, a president still has not been chosen, nor has an Interior secretary been appointed. And Idaho’s governor has indicated he will sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over the decision and may not choose anyone from his state to sit on the committee.

Sen. Conrad Burns’ staff also isn’t convinced that the citizens management committee, or even the recovery program itself, is a done deal. Burns asked for, and received, $100,000 in the 2001 federal budget to pay for the citizens management committee, according to an aide, Ben O’Connell.

“By no stretch was that meant to be supportive of the reintroduction process,” O’Connell says. He says Congress has put a hold on the transplantation of any bears until a habitat study of the two wilderness conducted by University of Alberta natural resources professor Dr. Mark Boyce has been completed and submitted for peer review. “As far as we’re concerned,” says O’Connell, “it’s not a done deal.” Boyce says his study is complete and has already been submitted, which means that, barring protracted litigation, grizzly bear recovery in the Selway-Bitterroot may indeed be a done deal.

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