Dispatches, March 1998
People who live around the Bitterroot Range, an expanse of rugged real estate that sprawls across 44,000 square miles of Idaho and western Montana, like to call their primeval backyard "the Big Wild." But for this patchwork of federally protected lands to be truly wild, one piece of the puzzle is conspicuously missing: Ursus arctos horribilis. Although grizzly bears once roamed the northern Rockies in large numbers — the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered and promptly blasted at least eight as it passed through the area — there hasn't been a verifiable grizzly sighting in the Bitterroots since 1953.
Sometime within the next few months, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to formalize details on a sweeping $2 million, five-year initiative to return grizzly bears to the Frank Church-River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Areas. But not without a resounding hue and cry from...just about everybody. If you thought the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction campaign three years ago was controversial, try reintroducing a seven-foot-tall, 900-pound omnivore that has been known to prey not only on livestock, but on the occasional Homo sapiens as well. Predictably, the Fish and Wildlife effort has already elicited a chorus of conservative critics — the same critics, in many cases, who railed against the gray wolf's return. Governor Phil Batt of Idaho and Senator Conrad Burns of Montana have argued that grizzly reintroduction will lock up the region's timber reserves while jeopardizing the safety of constituents who live within dining range of Bitterroot bears. "This is being shoved down the throats of an unwilling public," argues Burns. "What part of 'no' does the federal government not understand?"
Conservationistsare by no means unified on this issue, either. Two environmental groups have come forward with competing strategies for how to bring the bears back, plans that reflect the classic gamble that lies at the heart of most conservation campaigns: How much can you push for before you risk losing it all? In one corner is the Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife. Forging an unlikely partnership with timber interests, Defenders has spearheaded a compromise proposal that is now viewed by Fish and Wildlife as the "preferred alternative." This plan would classify reintroduced Bitterroot grizzlies as an "experimental population," a legally murky designation that would afford the animals and their habitat considerable but limited protection. The Defenders plan sets aside a relatively small parcel of territory — 5,785 square miles — and permits logging and grazing in outlying areas. And perhaps most significantly, it provides for a team of "citizen managers" to give local concerns a voice in the byzantine process.
"This is a struggle between the purists and the pragmatists — and we're the pragmatists," contends Defenders' Missoula-based representative, Hank Fischer. "Any plan that puts people second to bears just isn't going to fly. If you don't have the support of locals, these wildlife populations simply won't survive."
In the "purist" corner, meanwhile, is the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a grassroots group that champions a plan that would protect the grizzly under the Endangered Species Act, thus allowing federal biologists to manage the reintroduction while keeping politics — and the timber and ranching interests — at arm's length. The Alliance's plan also calls for protecting a substantially larger area, 20,000 square miles, with an eye toward building "habitat linkages" to other grizzly populations in Yellowstone and Canada.
Alliance executive director Mike Bader doesn't mince words in this debate. "The only thing that got compromised in [the Defenders] plan is the grizzly bear," says Bader. "Grizzlies are the slowest-breeding mammals in North America, and they need enormous amounts of territory to thrive. Introducing grizzlies without significant habitat protection is like boarding them on a sinking ship."
Critics of Fischer's group also point to legal heavy weather that's been gathering on the horizon of late: This past December, a federal judge in Wyoming declared the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program illegal. The judge focused his argument on the same "experimental population" designation on which the Defenders' plan is based. (That ruling is now under appeal.)
Ironically, there's another option that neither Fischer nor Bader cares to ponder: The Fish and Wildlife Service can choose to ignore both plans and instead decide to call for no action at all. Given that possibility, some brown bear advocates now worry that the conservationists' infighting could give the grizzly's opponents the political upper hand — thus unhinging the reintroduction initiative altogether. "These two camps need to elevate their dialogue considerably," argues noted grizzly bear champion Doug Peacock. "If they don't find some way to flex, I worry that this whole process is going to go down the toilet. And losing the Bitterroots would be a terrible blow to the grizzly's future in North America." — DAN OKO