Central Idaho to get grizzly population

Reintroduction plan opposed by Kempthorne

By Dan Gallagher - The Associated Press

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants a citizens panel to oversee management of an experimental population of grizzly bears that would be released in Central Idaho, but Gov. Dirk Kempthorne says he may fight the plan in court.

The federal agency Friday unveiled the preferred alternative for grizzly reintroduction in a final environmental impact statement.

The bear, listed as a threatened species, will mean those venturing into the wilderness will need some education, but grizzly populations grow so slowly they may not reach the reintroduction goals for half a century, said Bob Ruesink, supervisor of the service's Snake River Basin office and chairman of the Bitterroot subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

"The way to anticipate it is the initial population doesn't grow too fast and there's not much of a chance of encountering them," he said. "We've seen in other areas it's possible to recreate in bear territory. People shouldn't put themselves in thick brush situations to encounter a bear at short range, keep clean camps and put food in bear-proof containers."

The news was not welcome in Idaho's political circles.

Kempthorne "is still opposed to reintroduction in Idaho," press secretary Mark Snider said. "We have a constitutional defense fund and the governor would not be shy about using it."

The fund is a trust of about $1 million to battle for the state's interests in court.

The much-awaited environmental impact statement was slated to be released as early as last May but has been pushed back a number of times to accommodate a lengthy internal review process within Fish and Wildlife.

A 30-day comment period running from March 24 to April 24 is planned, with a final announcement in late spring or early summer.

The preferred option calls for 25 bears to be introduced in the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas over five years. The grizzlies would be declared a "non-essential, experimental" population and be managed by a committee of citizens.

Wolves released in 1995 and 1996 in Idaho have the same designation and can be killed if ranchers spot them killing livestock.

The agency's plan would have the governors of Idaho and Montana and the Nez Perce Tribe appoint 15 citizens to the management panel. Two scientists would advise the group as nonvoting members, one each from Montana and Idaho. The secretary of Interior would review all committee decisions, to ensure that they will lead to grizzly recovery.

"I think it's a very interesting idea to get involvement from people affected by this," Ruesink said. "The way we anticipate this is the first year would be largely spent getting them working like a team. The first task for the committee is getting out a lot of information."

The committee would develop recovery goals and policies for dealing with problem bears.

A unique panel of environmental, labor and timber industry groups backed the alternative with the citizen panel

"This is the first time ever the federal government has allowed local citizen management of an endangered species," said Jim Riley, director of the Intermountain Forestry Association. "That is a very important breakthrough."

Ruesink said studies have shown the Idaho-Montana habitat is capable of accommodating 280 to 300 bears. But their reproductive rate is so slow it could take 50 years to reach that threshold. The bears would be radio-collared to track their movements.

>From an estimated 50,000 grizzlies living in the contiguous United States before arrival of Europeans, their numbers have shrunk to about 1,100 in five populations in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. The grizzly is a native species of the Bitterroot ecosystem.

In its Federal Register announcement about the impact statement, Fish and Wildlife estimated 280 bears could potentially kill an average of six cows, 25 sheep and up to 500 big game animals a year.