Grizzly alert 

On Monday, November 30, Missoula ecologists, biologists and activists got together for a news conference to call attention to the plight of the grizzly bear-a situation that is worsening because of management practices designed by the same agencies that claim to protect the bear, says Mike Bader of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

The environmentalists' criticisms marked the beginning of a series of meetings sponsored by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a group of officials from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey and the federal and state fish and wildlife departments. The three-day annual federal grizzly conference, which began Tuesday, was held for the first time in Missoula to improve public involvement in grizzly conservation.

The enviros succeeded in drawing attention to their increasingly heated debate with federal agencies by announcing a new report and a recently-filed lawsuit. They also continued to emphasize their concerns about new federal management recommendations, including problems with standards for road management, inaccuracies in how federal agencies count grizzly bears and the negative impacts of industry on bear habitats.

Since the grizzly debate began, enviros have been pressuring federal agencies to pay less attention to politics and more attention to science so that industries such as timber, agriculture, oil and gas don't win out over the grizzly bear. But federal agencies claim they're doing the best they can to balance the needs of bears with the needs of humans.

Among the complaints made at the Monday meeting was a denunciation by Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, of the feds' 1994 standards for road management. These standards, he said, allow roads to be deemed closed simply by putting up a gate, which does not prevent vehicles from entering the area and thereby does not provide the undisturbed habitat bears need to survive. Also, Hammer added, grizzlies are known to stay away from roads regardless of the number of vehicles on the road. "These new standards are less restrictive to humans and machines but more damaging to grizzlies," he said, further proposing that existing roads in bear habitats be completely eliminated. Hammer called for postponement of the adoption of the standards until an independent consultant reviews the document and public input has been received.

In an interview with the Independent after the press conference, Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responded that federal agencies have closed hundreds of miles of roads on public lands to improve the habitat for bears, also claiming they have identified corridors for grizzlies to travel from one ecosystem habitat to another and that they have conducted a study to find out how highways affect grizzlies and their movements.

"We can't close all of the roads," Servheen said. "We need to balance the needs of the bears with the needs of people. That's our challenge."

The environmentalists also admonished the federal agencies about how they count grizzly bears, which is a crucial component to whether the bears' status remains threatened, is upgraded to endangered or is taken off the endangered species list altogether.

"The federal agencies are saying that we have grizzly bears coming out of our ears," said Brian Peck of the Sierra Club at the press conference. "But the way bears were counted was flawed, and a judge struck it down in 1995. And yet, these numbers are still used today. The bears are not any better off than they were 23 years ago when they were put on the endangered species list."

Federal agencies stand by their numbers and argue that the judge in the case told them to reconsider how bears are counted, not to redesign the counting methods. "We use the best available methods to count bears," says Fish and Wildlife's Servheen. "No one has suggested a better, affordable way to count bears. There are some very expensive methods, but we don't have that kind of funding. We need to use methods we can afford."

According to Servheen, the grizzly bear population in Yellowstone has increased from 220 bears in 1974 to between 400 and 600 bears today. Other ecosystems are not as closely researched as Yellowstone, but estimates for the Northern Continental Divide population are between 300 and 400.

The biggest problem for bears, Servheen says, is the high percentage of private land ownership. "Since 1988, 61 percent of bears that have died have died near private lands," he says. "They move into these areas to get at dog food or dig through garbage."

Environmental defenders agree that humans are the biggest threat to bears, but say federal agencies still need to take on the tough work of countering the most dangerous menace-industry.

"They have made as many adjustments on what I call 'housekeeping' as they can," says Brian Horejsi, a prominent bear biologist from Calgary, Alberta. "They have removed garbage, educated backpackers about feeding bears and situated campgrounds in the right spots. Now, they have to start doing the things that are tough-taking on industry: timber, agriculture and oil and gas. All of the grazing and building roads has fragmented (the bears') habitat."

To take matters one step further, environmentalists have also announced a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Interior for failing to supply names of people who have submitted public comments about grizzly bear recovery in the Bitterroot ecosystem. Reportedly, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed the suit so they can analyze and assess the credibility or bias of the comments.

Both federal officials and environmentalists have promised to continue their efforts to protect the grizzly bear. The only question now is which way is best for both the bear and the human population.

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