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Working for Bears or Barely Working?

Conservationists blast public process; FWS says request for info "preposterous"

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"By the end of the year, I also expect that the Yellowstone grizzly bear will be removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in portions of Idaho. Grizzly bears may be here to stay, but thanks to the state plan that you helped develop, federal management of this species is on its way out."

--Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, January 9 State of the State Address

To hear this message from the leader of Idaho's state government, you might think that the proposed removal of Endangered Species Act protections from the Yellowstone grizzly is an all-but-done done deal. If you attended the casual, meet-and-greet-style open house about delisting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held on January 12 in Idaho Falls, you might have gotten the same impression of the federal government. And according to some conservation groups, that feeling would be right, since they say public input appears to matter little in the government's drive to delist.

"I'm not sure why there was this meeting," said Joe Timchak, an Idaho Falls science teacher who attended the open house with his daughter. Timchak said he was tentatively supportive of the Fish and Wildlife Service's plan, announced on November 15, to hand control of bears over to state control, as long as he could be sure the bears were guaranteed adequate and protected habitat. But like several other locals who talked with BW after leaving the event, he added with a shrug, "It seems like the decision has been made basically."

The four-hour open house drew a small but steady stream of people with questions for Fish and Wildlife and Idaho Fish and Game officials, but far fewer than the reported 250 or so who attended the plan's one and only, public hearing, which took place January 11 in Cody, Wyoming. Chris Servheen, the service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, told the LA Times the reason for the lone hearing was that his agency had a $1,500 budget for public comment and could only afford one meeting. At the Idaho Falls event, Servheen told BW he felt an open-house format was as conducive to public comment as a hearing, since anyone who wanted to submit written comment could do so in a cardboard box in the corner of the conference room where the open house was held.

However, according to Louisa Wilcox, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's Wild Bear Project, who attended the Idaho Falls open house, the opportunity to hear and provide oral testimony is more than just a stage for voicing dissent.

"People come to these partly for the theater, but they also come to gauge the temperature of the discussion," she said. At the Cody hearing, according to the Times, 12 speakers complained about the dearth of hearings. Without such a meeting in Idaho, Wilcox said, "We just don't know how [Idahoans] feel. We'd like to know."

That's not all conservation groups would like to know. While delisting has supporters among environmentalists--most prominently, the National Wildlife Foundation--Wilcox's group and others say the current proposal and the entire public process are flawed by the government's unwillingness to make public the data from which the bear's current population numbers--the lynchpin of the push for delisting--is projected.

According to agency projections, the population of bears in and around Yellowstone is approximately 600 bears, of which a majority live in the 9,209-square mile Primary Conservation Area (PCA), encompassing Yellowstone National Park and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. If the bears are delisted, those living in Idaho outside the PCA would be under the control of the Idaho Fish and Game, and would be opened up for hunting, as well as for "reverse habituation"--which, according to Idaho's grizzly bear management plan, means allowing private citizens to shoot bears who eat human refuse, dog food supplies or other illicit food sources.

Servheen told BW the population numbers come from "peer-reviewed papers published in various journals," most of which were written by members of the government-run Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. The nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, though, has requested the raw data supporting the papers, citing among other concerns a previous report that said approximately 10 percent of the data about grizzly bear populations had been inaccurately transcribed prior to being turned over to scientists. Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold said he has twice sent letters to Servheen asking for the data, in order to have it analyzed by "independent scientists." He was turned down the first time, and hasn't received an answer the second time.

"It could be a huge difference," Honnold said. "All of their numbers that relate to populations, and the population trends, whether it is increasing or decreasing, could be fundamentally wrong." With several of the bears' staple food sources in decline, he said, it is essential to have accurate data on which to base the allowable mortality limits for bears after delisting. "If they think they've got enough to go out and shoot bears, why wouldn't they be willing to share the basic data?"

Servheen told BW that Earthjustice's request was "preposterous and totally out of the realm of my experience." He denied the possibility that such a review would turn up anything new, saying, "It's part of a way to create doubt in the science and the scientists, because it doesn't meet their agenda. It's just unheard of for any kind of a scientist to be required to give his raw data to anyone else."

But it's not only the population numbers that Honnold says are suspect. Last year, the Bush administration rewrote some of the Forest Service's forest management plans, softening some habitat standards and removing their legally binding language. The Fish and Wildlife service originally planned to rely on those plans for guidance on protecting grizzly habitat, but in a January 10 article in the Jackson Hole News and Guide, Servheen admitted that the new standards were a problem. He was quoted as saying, "We're expecting the Forest Service to fix it."

Honnold rejected that answer, telling BW, "He says, yes, they have a problem they haven't fixed, but you'd think you would fix the necessary problems before unfurling a proposal." Earthjustice is suing the federal government over the rule changes. But in the meantime, Honnold said, then the public is being asked to comment on a flawed plan. "The whole public process is screwed up," he said. "The whole process is one that frustrates public opinion, but also shows that the service is hell-bent on delisting and doesn't really care what the public has to say about it."

Servheen's interpretation of the conflict was the exact opposite. "We're not establishing a system that puts the bears at risk. We're not just putting them on a slippery slope and wishing them well," he said. "The amount of mistrust that these environmental groups have is mind-boggling."

To read the delisting plan and Idaho's grizzly bear management plan, follow the links with this story at www.boiseweekly.com.