TCS Daily

Endangered Grizzlies Could Return as the Good News Bears

By Karl Hess - May 30, 2001 12:00 AM

Part Two of Two
Click here to read Part One

While George Bush was battling Al Gore in Florida last November, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was quietly making conservation history. It put the U.S. Interior Department's seal of approval on a grizzly bear reintroduction plan that could transform the Endangered Species Act (ESA) from a top-down federal intrusion to a bottom-up, citizen-based conservation initiative.

Faced with the real likelihood of grizzly bear reintroduction in central-Idaho and far-western Montana, local conservationists (led by the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife) joined with the Intermountain Forest Industry Association (representing most of the timber companies and sawmills in the Northwest), the mill workers union out of Lewiston, Idaho, and citizens groups to fashion an unprecedented plan for bringing the grizzly back to the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church wilderness areas. Developed over six years, the plan turns the ESA on its head by putting local citizens, not a federal bureaucracy, in charge of the bears' fate.

Under the plan, the grizzly returns to the 3.8 million-acre Bitterroot Ecosystem - 90 percent of which is public property - as a "nonessential experimental population." This means that the bear's "rights" can't trump the rights of local people. Offending bears are to be relocated or even shot to protect life and property. More importantly, the ESA designation is the authority the citizen framers of the plan used to do what is truly revolutionary: create a Citizen Management Committee that allows local people to manage the bear's reintroduction and to call the shots on the bear's future in its new home.

Republicans hailed the plan. Then-Rep. John Kasich of (R-Ohio) pointed to it as the brand of collaborative conservation that conservatives could and should support. Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot wrote that the plan "represents the kind of Endangered Species Act flexibility and the local partnership concepts that the Secretary of the Interior (Bruce Babbitt) has been advocating." And Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho (then a congressman) spread the plan's gospel to the House Republican Task Force on the Environment.

Today, the plan is in danger, largely because the Bush administration is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. On one hand, the plan melds perfectly with Interior Secretary Gale Norton's agenda for local control and consensus-based decision making on public and private lands to conserve public resources. On the other hand, Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho has drawn the line: no grizzlies on his turf and watch. This puts the administration in a difficult spot. If it supports the plan, it must renege on its campaign pledge to give western governors more say in their internal affairs. If it dismisses the plan, it must renege on its pledge to give Americans more say over their local environments.

The administration is leaning toward Kempthorne. The governor has valid points in opposing the plan. The grizzly is not the kind of neighbor most people want, and to impose that beast - appropriately called Ursus arctos horribilis - on the citizens of Idaho is presumptuous at best.

But the risk of horribilis in the Bitterroot Ecosystem is far less than the governor imagines. Grizzlies do pose a risk to people. But to date, every single human fatality from a grizzly attack - with the exception of a hunter killed by a wounded bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness - has happened in either Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks. Even in those parks, visitors, who flock there by the millions each year, know that the probability of even seeing a grizzly is close to zero. And in the vast wilderness of the Bitterroot Ecosystem, where only four or five grizzlies are planned for reintroduction per year for five years, and where human numbers are only a fraction of park populations, the probability of sighting a grizzly is even less and the likelihood of a human-bear encounter is virtually nil.

By the most liberal estimates, it will take a century before grizzlies number even 200 across the width and breadth of the almost 4 million acres of grizzly bear recovery area. When grizzlies do fill-up the Bitterroot Ecosystem in 2100, there may well be risks to people at the interface of wilderness and human settlement. But it will be a minimal risk, one that should resonant well with Republicans who have chided greens for their unreasonable demands for a risk-free environment.

In addition, claims that grizzly reintroduction will conflict with economic growth in the Idaho counties that surround the wilderness recovery area doesn't hold water against Montana's experience. Grizzlies reside mostly in Montana's two fastest growing and most urban counties: Gallatin and Flathead. When conflicts have occurred between people and bears, they have been resolved equitably and quickly. Local economies have not suffered.

The Bush administration should back the grizzly's return under the auspices of citizen control. But it should do so without riding roughshod over Kempthorne. The governor is a reasonable man who cares deeply about his state and the state of its citizens. He will listen to reason if the administration, led by Interior, takes the time to make a persuasive case.

Kempthorne already knows that reintroduction of the grizzly to the Bitterroot Ecosystem could be the key to the bear's delisting under the ESA. Once off the threatened and endangered list, it would no longer be a regulatory albatross to the people of the northwest. With enterprise, it could even become an economic asset through tourism and big-game hunting. Kempthorne also knows that a favorable Bush decision will simply buy Idaho a few more bear-free years. The grizzly is coming to Idaho, whether naturally by migration or unnaturally at the hand of man.

What Kempthorne may not have considered is the less obvious yet more profound significance of the bear's return. Today, ESA initiatives such as Habitat Conservation Plans and Safe Harbor Agreements provide incentives to private landowners to voluntarily protect endangered species. This is vital at a time when, according to a recent LA Times poll, 58 percent of Americans believe protecting endangered species "should take priority over preserving personal property rights." Sadly, few Americans know of voluntary, incentive-based ESA initiatives, or of the constructive use of personal property rights and community-based management to preserve, not destroy, threatened wildlife. The Bitterroot grizzly plan will change that by bringing to the public's radar screen an approach to saving species that is locally run, incentive-based, and profoundly respectful of private property rights.

The plan's promise extends also to public lands, where flexibility in the application of the ESA has been almost non-existent. Thanks to the grizzly's fierce nature, ESA enforcers have had to come to terms with local needs and local rights. The result is that the Bitterroot plan could become a nationwide model for protecting and restoring public species on both private and public lands - and doing so by relying on community institutions to give voice to local residents, to give due respect to local property rights, and to give the green light to incentives in lieu of prescriptions.

As icing on the cake, and as a way to make horribilis less horrible, Interior should consider turning the grizzly's comeback into a nationwide forum on conservation and wildlife protection. At minimal cost, the Fish & Wildlife Service could outfit each released grizzly with a GPS radio collar. Interior, in turn, could establish a public web site for tracking the grizzlies in real - or almost real - time. School children by the millions would tune-in daily to the web site to follow the movements of the bear and, if small video cameras were selectively added to some collars, to actually view the bears and their habitat. Likewise, campers and hikers to the Bitterroot Ecosystem (as well as private property inholders) could tune-in to find out where the grizzlies were to avoid unexpected encounters. A slight delay might be added to the GPS positions to avoid a mass flocking of the public to grizzly sites and the inevitable human-bear conflicts that have marred the national park experience for some.

Visitors to the web site would not only learn of the bears' whereabouts and natural history, but they would be exposed to ideas and lessons on conservation that aren't taught in today's schools. Preconceptions held by the public that property rights and local control conflict with conservation could be countered with real-time photos, a myriad of real stories, and science-based explanations that would take children and adults alike to the cutting edge of the new environmentalism of community control, local rights, and individual responsibility.

Done properly, the grizzly could become the Bush administration's symbol for cutting-edge conservation and for education that leaves no child behind. Indeed, hitching new environmental ideas to broad-based education is Bush's best hope for leaving a conservation legacy that lasts. Kempthorne, of course, may still dislike bears, but he's politically savvy enough to grasp the good news grizzlies could bear.


TCS Daily Archives