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Predator in the Crosshairs

With the possible removal of federal protections later this year, what comes next for the embattled Great Bear in Idaho?


Almost two centuries ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's Corps of Discovery trudged across Lemhi Pass from western Montana and began a memorable 105-day culinary tour of Idaho. When traversing the Bitterroot Mountains, they had a lean snack of coyote and crayfish. Starving near the Clearwater River, they dined on huckleberries and horsemeat. At one point, dried salmon and camas root were a welcome gift from some sympathetic Nez Perce; alas, it resulted in food poisoning. But the Corps found the pinnacle of the Gem State cornucopia at what is often called Camp Chopunnish, on the western fringe of the current Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Here, the adventurers developed a hankering for the gamey flesh of North America's largest predator, the grizzly bear. Over a month-long stay, they killed and consumed no less than seven bears, including a mother and two cubs, by utilizing a Nez Perce cooking technique that Captain Lewis thought made the bear extra-tender.

Two centuries and several brushes with extinction later, Idaho hunters may once again have the opportunity to bring home the bear-bacon.

Later this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to propose the removal of Endangered Species Act protections from the Yellowstone grizzly bear, turning the management of potentially hundreds of bears to the state governments of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. This would mean, among other changes, the reinstatement of legal grizzly hunting in states that are already historically intolerant of predators.

While government officials, biologists and conservationists agree that the prospect of de-listing represents a triumph for the embattled ESA, they split on whether that delisting should actually occur-yet. Many also disagree about the role that Idaho, and specifically Lewis and Clark's chomping grounds of the Selway-Bitterroot, should play in the future of this controversial carnivore.

Are bears ready for delisting?

When white explorers first looked on Idaho, grizzly bears were plentiful across the state's mountain ranges all the way from the Canadian border along the Continental Divide to the southeast corner near present-day Yellowstone National Park. However, as settlers moved into the state, in the words of a 1996 Idaho Legislature resolution against the reintroduction of the species, "Grizzly bear and human interaction occurred to the extent that it became necessary to reduce the populations of grizzly bear in the interests of personal safety and the protection of private property"-in other words, bears were hunted and killed with few restrictions.

In a matter of a few generations, humans exterminated over 99 percent of the grizzly population in the lower 48 states, and wiped out several entire Idaho populations. The last government-confirmed bear mortality in the vast Selway-Bitterroot occurred in 1932, and by 1975, when the grizzly was placed on the endangered species list, only 200 to 300 total bears hung on in the Northern Rocky Mountains, including the protected Yellowstone National Park area.

As of the 30-year anniversary of the listing, around 500 to 600 bears live in and around Yellowstone, including in several largely rural Eastern Idaho counties like Teton and Fremont. Rather than plummeting, the population is enjoying a steady 4 percent annual increase, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen. Less encouragingly, only another 40 or so bears reside in each of Idaho's other grizzly habitats, the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems in Northern Idaho, which are shared with Northwest Montana, Northeast Washington and British Columbia. Only the Yellowstone grizzly population is ample enough to be included in the proposed delisting, but Servheen said the delisting discussion nonetheless represents a triumph.

"It's one of the greatest success stories of the Endangered Species Act," Servheen told BW. "We've taken a population we thought we were going to lose 30 years ago, and which was under great stress, to one that is dramatically reoccupying areas that they haven't been in 70 to 100 years."

Need proof of the successful expansion? According to Steve Huffaker, Idaho Fish and Game director and chairman of the federal government's Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, verification can ironically be found in the fact that more grizzly bears are getting killed. In 2004, 50 grizzly bears were killed by humans in the lower 48 states-the most since the bear was originally listed-and 19 were killed in the region surrounding Yellowstone.

"We're not alarmed or surprised by that," Huffaker said. "We've been in a recovery mode for Yellowstone bears for 30 years now, and we've succeeded. So there are a lot more bears, and consequently there are a lot more bear-human interactions, and the bear usually ends up on the bad side of that."

According to the federal government's management plan after delisting, titled the "Final Conservation Strategy for the Grizzly Bear in the Yellowstone Ecosystem," many grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region would not see their protections from hunting, harassment or habitat destruction reduced if delisting occurs. Those that reside in Yellowstone Park or in the Primary Conservation Area (PCA), a 9,209-square-mile area encompassing the park, would still be regarded as off-limits to such threats. Only bears outside the PCA, in areas like the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming or the Centennial Mountains in Eastern Idaho, would be opened up to state control. However, some environmentalists disagree with Servheen and Huffaker's assertions that these grizzly bears are ready for a decrease in federal safeguards.

"The government's position, historically, has been that if there aren't many bears getting killed, they're successful in saving bears, and if there are a lot of bears getting killed, that means there are more bears," explained Doug Honnold, an attorney for the environmental legal defense fund Earthjustice. "So, under no scenario have they ever said, 'We've got a problem because there are too many bears getting killed or too few bears getting killed.'"

Honnold said that the current plan for management after delisting, as outlined in the final conservation strategy, constitutes "a bad deal for bears, and for people who care about wild places." He also said that unless the government added "substantial improvements"-for instance, laws and regulations to protect the bears where they already reside-then his organization would file suit to challenge the delisting.

"As we look at the situation, the basic question is, how do we ensure that we have enough bears over the landscape to ensure that they'll be here not just for another decade or two or three or four, but for the long-term-more than 100 years? That means having enough space to sustain enough bears that they can withstand all that the future holds for them," says Honnold.

Predictably, a central part of environmentalists' vision of the long-term viability of grizzly bears centers on an issue that is every bit as contentious today as 30 years ago: habitat protection. Of the delisting plan, Louisa Willcox, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's Wild Bears Project, said, "The area [outside of the PCA] is vulnerable to development, particularly in Wyoming, for energy development. Important bear habitat was once immediately put off limits because it was seen as so crucial to bear recovery. That would go away."

While Servheen admits that some habitat would cease to be protected after delisting, he insists that the government's management of the development in previously cut-off areas-whether public or private land-would be watched closely by the appropriate state and federal agencies. "Don't be hoodwinked into thinking that delisting means we go back to the way things used to be," he said. "It's not like all this could occur and anybody would do anything. Looking at it from a bear's point of view, there would be very little difference between delisting and the way things are now."

While the management plan is not explicit in its standards about what habitat will retain protections, one exception to Servheen's claim of "very little difference" after delisting can be found in the individual state grizzly management plans of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. These lengthy documents, all perusable on the Web, provide the template for how Idaho citizens might be expected to deal with bears in the near future.

In Idaho's post-delisting grizzly bear management plan, the hunting (or "harvesting") of bears is described a number of different ways. First, it will help to raise funding and other resources for bear management. Hunting is also expected to help public relations, by raising the level of acceptance among residents of grizzly bear habitat. Most uniquely, however, hunting bears is also identified as "a form of reverse habituation."

What reverse habituation means is this: Conceivably, after delisting, if a bear in Eastern Idaho becomes accustomed to eating dog food or trash from the property of a careless citizen-one of the most common causes of grizzly-human conflict-the townspeople will be allowed to hunt the offending animal, a la Frankenstein or Beauty and the Beast. The reasoning for the hunt, according to the plan: "Management actions that involve capturing bears are expensive to conduct and, to the extent that hunter harvest can substitute for this, costs will be reduced." Conversely, according to the federal Final Conservation Strategy, bears are only killed when showing "unnatural aggression," or after repeated attempts at relocation.

Torches and pitchforks probably wouldn't be allowed on these cost-saving civic excursions, but a few other old-world relics might, such as hounds and bear bait. Idaho is the only state in the Yellowstone grizzly's range that still allows hunting by these methods, albeit only for black bears (and hunting laws are very specific about it being only for black bears). While to justify hunting as "reverse habituation" implies that garbage is a kind of bait, Idaho's management plan does not mention whether hunting grizzly bears using the controversial methods would be allowed.

Why such explicit instructions for a delisting that hasn't even happened yet? Like the plan says, letting people kill bears is the way to get them to support bears. According to Dr. John Beecham, a former 30-year Idaho Fish and Game veteran who now runs Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation, and who has participated in grizzly reintroduction programs in Russia and Turkey, bear hunting is simply part of a common Idaho worldview. Case in point: The Idaho Legislature voted last session to decrease the cost of bear and cougar hunting tags in Idaho, both from $233.50 to $150. The price of a hound-hunting permit was also decreased, from $127 to $100. Conversely, the price of a black bear-baiting permit went up a hefty 10 percent-but only from $10 to $11.

"The mindset here is to kill predators," Beecham told BW. "When grizzly bears and wolves are listed [on the ESA], they lower prices and increase permits so they can pick on bobcats, black bears and cougars." Citing the ecological benefits that large predators have on wilderness ecosystems, Beecham said of the preying-on-carnivores attitude, "It's just crazy."

Should our "mindset" go overboard in Idaho or anywhere else after delisting, however, Servheen at the USFWS said that mortality limits would be in place to keep the bear population from reverting. As written, the Final Conversation Strategy allows an annual death cap of 4 percent of the bear population-about 21 bears-from human causes. Of these casualties, only six would be allowed to happen to female bears. Should the mortality limits be consistently exceeded, Servheen said that several steps of review processes would kick in, potentially leading to reinstituted protections or even relisting.

Environmentalists like the NRDC's Willcox, however, deride that review process for not being specific enough.

"There's no trigger mechanism," she said. "It's a very vague and discretionary review process, and there's nothing that says, 'You drop below X number of bears, you automatically gain protection.' We could easily see a freefall situation."

Servheen predicted that a proposal for delisting should be finalized by this summer, at which point it will face a public review process. How the Conservation Strategy would ultimately be altered by public comment is unclear; what is clear is that should delisting become an imminent possibility, a bear-fight could happen the likes of which we haven't seen since ... well, since the last time the federal government attempted to have a say over the fate of grizzly bears in Idaho.

Selway-Bitterroot reintroduction: extinct, or in hibernation?

In November 2000, in response to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan to transplant 25 grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne famously declared, "I oppose bringing these massive, flesh-eating carnivores into Idaho." After adding a second memorable sound-bite-that "This is perhaps the first federal land management action in history likely to result in injury or death of members of the public"- he filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a move which led Interior Secretary Gale Norton to halt the reintroduction effort. In the mind of many Idahoans, the issue of grizzly bear reintroduction was settled for good.

However, almost five years later, the idea of reintroducing grizzly bears to an area where they were stamped out 70 years ago continues to be divisive not only for environmentalists, but also among government officials. Case in point: Despite the federal stalling of reintroduction, the federal grizzly management plan, which Servheen helped to author, still mentions the Bitterroot Ecosystem as a likely candidate to help solve bears' "long-term genetic concerns"-that is, provide a genetic link between otherwise isolated populations in Yellowstone, Northern Montana, the Canadian Rockies and the Cascade Range in Washington.

"The Bitterroot is probably the only area in the lower 48 states where [grizzlies] are not today, and where we could establish them," Servheen told BW. "It would certainly make grizzly bears healthier everywhere and increase the probability of their long-term survival everywhere."

While differing with Servheen on the issue of delisting, the bear conservationist Willcox agrees with the Fish and Wildlife official on the continued importance of the Selway-Bitterroot. "It's a very big piece of the puzzle," she said. "The Bitterroot could harbor 400 to 600 bears, and it could bring us a lot farther from zero in terms of risk of extinction."

According to the rejected USFWS plan, only 25 bears would have been introduced to the Idaho wilderness. Though the goal was to eventually create a thriving population of around 280 bears, with migratory connections to other ecosystems, the plan acknowledged that it would take at least 50, and more likely approximately 110 years to reach such a level.

As for the carnage inflicted by these flesh-eaters? The plan estimated that even at the eventual level of 280 bears, casualties would not exceed four to eight cattle and between five and 44 sheep per year. According to a USFWS informational Web site dated November of 2000, estimated casualties for humans in the Selway-Bitterroot would be one per "every few decades"-approximately the same as other non-national park bear habitat. In the Greater Yellowstone Area outside of Yellowstone Park, for instance, the current average is a single human mortality per 53 years.

"It has a lot more to do with emotion than biology," admitted IDFG Director Huffaker of Idaho's historic unwillingness. Huffaker acknowledged that from a conservation standpoint, Idaho continues to be "a bit of a tender spot" at Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meetings, but he takes comfort in his assertion that Yellowstone's population is not as genetically constricted as some environmentalists believe.

"The population is biologically recovered," Huffaker said. "We're talking about a pretty stable population; not really imperiled with genetic diversity."

Huffaker says that eventually, he and other biologists expect grizzly bears to naturally migrate into the Idaho wilderness-indeed, some may already be there, which makes reintroduction a less pressing issue to him. "Eventually, there will be grizzly bears in that area, whether they are reintroduced or not," he said.

The Final Conservation Strategy acknowledges the possibility of natural grizzly colonization in Idaho, but says that such a possibility should be given only two to three decades to work before artificial government reintroduction takes place. But the conservationists who supported the original Idaho reintroduction effort say they aren't willing to wait another 30 years for what would be the most drastic step toward grizzly restoration since the 1975 ESA listing.

Tom France, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, spearheaded the reintroduction effort by actively working with timber industry leaders, and authored the unconventional "citizen management plan" that was both accepted by the USFWS and polled very highly among Idaho citizens. France recently told BW that while Norton's rejection was "deeply disappointing," he has not given up on bringing bears back to the Selway-Bitterroot.

"We will patiently wait for the Department of Interior to shift their attention back to the Selway-Bitterroot," France said. "We're confident that this will occur both because of the duties imposed by the ESA and because it is such great bear habitat."

While Willcox was critical of France's citizen management plan-which called for flexible rules about who could kill nuisance bears, and designated reintroduced bears as an "experimental" population with no governmental "lock up" of critical habitat-she shared his hope about an eventual political shift bringing bears back to the Selway-Bitterroot. "This issue is not going to go away," she said. "It's just a delay, from the standpoint of recovery and what bears need."

Willcox said that in the future, bear conservationists should focus more on increasing understanding among rural communities of how to avoid problems, rather than working to give citizens more authority over the management of bears. "It obviously didn't work," she said of citizen management. "I don't know why we would repeat that. You've got to work with county commissioners; develop an education system, child-to-child and community-to-community. That was a big missing piece last time. And certainly, the political climate needs to improve."

That political climate shift could ultimately be the biggest hurdle for the supporters of reintroduction. While Kempthorne's final term as governor will end next year, all three of the candidates to replace him told BW that they were opposed to grizzly bear reintroduction-for very different reasons.

Democrat Jerry Brady of Idaho Falls phrased his rejection biologically-and much to the surprise of environmentalists Honnold and Wilcox. "I understand the arguments [for reintroduction]," Brady said, "but I guess I would say that at the moment, we've got probably all the predators we can handle."

U.S. Congressman Butch Otter, one of two Republicans currently vying for Kempthorne's position, portrayed his opinion in terms of federal-vs.-state-government conflict. "The grizzly bear program is yet another example of the federal government acting without verifiable science to impose stringent regulation over the lives of Idaho citizens," Otter said. "I agree with Gov. Kempthorne that the program violates the Tenth Amendment and the National Environmental Policy Act, and I applaud the Bush administration for having the wisdom to listen to the people who live and work here."

Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, the third declared candidate for the 2006 election, took a different route than either Otter or Brady, wording his answer in terms of human entitlement to do with the natural as we wish. "I believe Idaho belongs to human beings," Risch said. "Everyone will concede that reintroduction of grizzly bears will result in the death of human beings, just as happens every year in Glacier National Park and Alaska. It is a clear fact that human beings and grizzly bears do not mix." Risch further predicted that reintroduction of grizzly bears would "interfere with the wise use of Idaho's natural resources, as history teaches us that protectionism would provide a basis for lawsuits by those opposed to the wise use of our natural resources."

The environmental attorney Honnold cited such wide-ranging opinions as evidence why grizzly bears are such a contentious issue-and why they can be such a tough sell to Western politicians. "The thing with grizzly bears is that it is as much or more about larger social values than about what biology tells us about how many bears we need, and how much space they need in order to live," he said. "It is as much about visions of a place that is untrammeled and pure, where people can get away from civilization and experience a primeval backcountry experience, as opposed to people who view federal lands from a consumption standpoint."

Servheen of the USFWS, conversely, objects to the idea that bears need to be "sold" in the first place. "They are a native species that have been here 10,000 years, since the last glaciation," he said. "I don't think we have the right to say that they need to do something for us to provide them with any value."

Servheen said that forced reintroduction will eventually need to happen because, "We need to do that for healthy ecosystems in the West." He also indicated that despite political objections, the battle over grizzly restoration has more at stake than just livestock, property rights and an occasional mauling.

"People want healthy ecosystems, " he said. "People don't live here because we have stoplights and interstate highways. They live here because the area has all the attributes of big, wild country and all the animals that don't live in any other part of the country. If we eliminate those values, and if we make this just like California, then it will be a great loss."