Grizzlies need protection, advocates say


Associated Press
King 5 News

SPOKANE, Wash. - Grizzly bears may be among the most fearsome predators on earth, but they won't survive without continued protection from Uncle Sam, advocates for the threatened species contend.

Despite denials from the federal government, some environmental groups are convinced the Bush administration wants to knock grizzlies off the endangered species list as soon as possible.

That would allow development on some of the 6 million acres of protected grizzly habitat, which environmental groups say could crowd the bears out of existence. They have launched a public relations fight in favor of Ursus arctos.

"Delisting is obviously a way to get unhinged from federal protection a considerable amount of land," said Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Bears need big open spaces ... they need more country than they are in now."

"Protecting bears stands in the way of a lot of economic development," said bear researcher Steve Stringham of Soldotna, Alaska.

But Chris Servheen, the federal government's coordinator for grizzly bear recovery for 22 years, said he is under no political pressure to try and delist the bears.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has also said she is committed to expanding bear populations in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, where most of the estimated 1,100 grizzlies in the Lower 48 live now.

Servheen said grizzly numbers appear to be rising. In 2002, a record 52 females with cubs were reported. That was 10 more than the year before.

"There were females with 102 cubs that were seen, and we don't see them all," Servheen said, adding the grizzly population has been increasing by 3 to 4 percent a year for the past five years.

It is just such statements from grizzly managers that worry environmental groups.

Willcox recently released a 17-page compilation of comments from various government officials and agencies over the past few years that she believes shows the government wants to delist grizzlies.

Servheen, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula, Mont, notes that the whole point of the endangered species program is to rebuild populations to the point where those species do not need protection.

While grizzlies are recovering, the government is more than a year away from any effort to delist the bears, which would require a formal proposal released for public hearings, he said.

"What we are seeing is more bears and more cubs born and bears occupying many habitats they have not been in for decades," Servheen said. "They are far outside the Yellowstone recovery zone, where grizzlies have not been for 50 or 60 years."

As late as the 1850s, more than 100,000 grizzlies lived in the western United States. The bears had a powerful hold on the American imagination, especially after the Lewis and Clark expedition recorded numerous encounters with "turrible" charging grizzlies.

Because they preyed on humans and livestock, the bears were hunted nearly to extinction in the Lower 48 states. Today the surviving grizzlies live around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, the Idaho Panhandle and perhaps some remote ranges in Washington state.

In 1975 they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Grizzlies continue to thrive in Alaska and British Columbia.

Servheen and his critics agree on at least one thing: Preserving habitat is crucial to increasing the number of bears.

"Our objective is to guarantee that 250 or 500 years from now there are still healthy grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem," Servheen said.

Willcox, who lives in Bozeman, Mont., said the federal government appeared to be moving towards ceding control of bear recovery to the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

She worried that business interests that want to free up large chunks of land for development hold more power at the state level.

That includes tourism-dependent counties around Yellowstone, and oil and gas developers in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming, she said.

Opponents also worry that placing grizzlies under state control could potentially open the bears to hunting.

Stringham likened the grizzly issue to a financial plan in which long-term goals are ignored and only partial data is used.

"Millions are poured into census methods to find out how many bears we've got, as if a magic number of bears makes it recovered," Stringham said. But the federal government ignores the more important and more complicated habitat issues crucial for long-term survival, he said.

Willcox said environmental groups also fear that government researchers will try to link recovering grizzly populations in the Glacier National Park area with those believed to be in the Selkirk and Cabinet Mountains of Idaho, Montana and Washington.

The Glacier population could be delisted on the grounds that, with 400 to 500 bears, it is recovered, and that would cover the Selkirks and Cabinets as well, Willcox warned.


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