A wilderness discovery brings to bear new problems

The possibility that grizzlies aren't extinct in Idaho presents no less a political challenge than when they were thought to be long gone.
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A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park.

The possibility that grizzlies aren't extinct in Idaho presents no less a political challenge than when they were thought to be long gone.

On Labor Day, a hunter trying to shoot black bears over bait – a truly sporting activity – in the Idaho wilderness wound up killing a grizzly instead. This is big news. Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot area is the largest of six grizzly bear recovery zones in the Lower 48 states and has long been considered a crucial missing link in the scheme to connect grizzly habitat from Yellowstone to the Yukon. But until that hunter got lucky, no one had definitively seen a grizzly there since 1946.

Bud Moore, who first lived among grizzlies in the Bitterroots as a teenager in 1930, had been credited with – or blamed for – shooting the last grizzly in the Bitterroots shortly after World War II. Moore has denied it emphatically. He has said he shot a large black bear in the late 1940s, not a grizzly. When he was working as a ranger in 1946, he may, however, have been the last person to see grizzly tracks in the Bitterroots. "The last track I saw was along the Spruce Creek Fork of the Brushy in 1946. There was no life in its wake. The mud had dried around the imprint of the big paw and its long claws in what seemed to me an attempt by nature to preserve some sign of the last of the great bear's passing."

In the 61 years since Moore found those tracks, people have periodically claimed to spot grizzlies, but until last week no one had confirmed any of the alleged sightings. In the 1990s, wildlife officials started talking about introducing grizzlies from someplace else into the Bitterroots. A new population could occupy more than 25,000 square miles of protected habitat there.

But the idea of introducing a new protected species raised a lot of local fears, not just among people who worried about encountering a grizzly bear on a hiking trail but among forest products and mining companies that worried about getting excluded from federal land, and among ranchers who worried about grizzlies eating their cattle or sheep. Years of negotiation that included environmental groups, forest products companies, and mining and ranching interests produced a plan for introducing at least 25 bears from other areas over a period of five years and gave unusual power to a 15-member citizens' management committee. The whole process was "a model of cross-stakeholder cooperation," said Defenders of Wildlife biologist Martin Smith. (Not all environmental groups were so enthusiastic. Some thought the plan wouldn't protect the bears rigorously enough.) In 2000, during the final months of the Clinton administration, the Interior Department issued a "record of decision" that named grizzly reintroduction as its preferred alternative.

But a new Idaho governor, Dirk Kempthorne – the current secretary of the Interior – killed it. Kempthorne said he was against bringing in "an anti-social, flesh-eating animal." In 2001, Bush's first secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, announced that the federal government would invest its resources in areas that already contained grizzlies.

Now it turns out that the conclusion that Bitterroot grizzlies were extinct was premature. Have the big bears been there all along? Did they sneak in from somewhere else while no one was watching? Nobody knows, although scientists are testing the dead bear's DNA in an effort to find out. Either way, now that we know the bears are around, the government should protect them. "This bear should be a wake-up call to Idaho," says Louisa Willcox, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council's Wild Bears Project. Now that the state knows grizzlies are - or may be - there, it should try to prevent conflicts between bears and people. This would involve such mundane things as encouraging people not to leave garbage or pet food out where it is likely to attract ursine visitors. It would also involve a ban on hunting bears over bait, a practice that, Willcox notes, neighboring Montana outlawed 30 years ago. Willcox says she's not against hunting per se, but "real men can kill black bears without glazed donuts."

Whatever steps the state and federal governments take or refuse to take for now, those anti-social, flesh-eating animals are already in the Bitterroots. Kempthorne and his former constituents will have to figure out what to do about it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.