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Poll: Bring Back Grizzly Reintroduction To Idaho Could Begin Next Year

Thu., June 12, 1997

Many Idahoans and some Montanans support reintroducing grizzly bears in Idaho wilderness areas, a new poll suggests.

A poll done for Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation indicates 46 percent of the people questioned support reintroduction of grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church wilderness areas. About 35 percent of the people opposed bringing the grizzlies back to the 4 million-acre roadless area.

Nineteen percent of the 254 people surveyed had no opinion.

The two wildlife groups joined with labor unions, the Intermountain Forest Industry Association and the Resource Organization on Timber Supply four years ago to try to forge a compromise on grizzly reintroduction.

Together they have agreed on a reintroduction plan that includes a citizen committee appointed by the governors of Idaho and Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may issue a draft environmental impact statement on grizzly reintroduction this summer.

Barring major roadblocks, the first bears could be brought in from Canada sometime next year, said Mike Roy, of the National Wildlife Federation.

Seventeen percent of the respondents live in the three Montana counties bordering the Selway-Bitterroot and the other 83 percent live throughout Idaho.

People in favor most often cited the fact that bears once were a part of the ecosystem as their reason for supporting reintroduction.

Opponents most often said they were against the proposal because bears are dangerous to humans.

“There are plainly a substantial number of people in Idaho who support grizzly reintroduction,” said Hank Fischer, of the Defenders of Wildlife. “The poll also shows there are people who won’t change their mind, and we respect that.”

The percentage of people supporting bear reintroduction increased to 62 percent if it’s done with specific conditions. Those conditions include relocating bears if they wander into populated areas, using a citizen committee to manage the experimental population, limiting reintroduction costs to $250,000 a year and not imposing new restrictions on human activity to protect the bears.

“If people take the time to learn the basic tenets of citizen management alternatives, they are supportive,” Fischer pointed out.

Most people have problems with bears based on encounters in national parks. Fischer predicted there will be fewer problems in Idaho because the reintroduction is in a wilderness area. There has been only one person killed because of a grizzly encounter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in the past 50 years, Fisher said. And there have been only a handful of maulings.

The Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation hope their poll will sway Idaho’s congressional delegation and Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, all of whom adamantly oppose grizzly reintroduction.

The poll numbers released Wednesday appear to contradict a poll taken in January and February. Boise pollster Greg Smith, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, asked 412 registered Idaho voters whether they favor or oppose “reintroducing grizzly bears into Idaho.”

His survey found 52 percent against reintroduction, and 43 percent in favor.

The difference in the polls may lie in the way the questions were asked, Smith said.

The conservations’ pollster opened questioning with a statement that included: “grizzly bears are a threatened species which used to live throughout Idaho and other Western states until the early 1900s when populations were reduced dramatically through killing. A proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Western Montana and Central Idaho is currently being considered by government agencies.”

“I would not have given an introduction,” Smith said. “When you read a statement, as true as it may be, you are biasing the respondents.”

The polls are not necessarily incompatible.

“It may be that if everybody knew this information, they would feel this way,” Smith said. “But it’s misleading to say everybody feels this way.”

Batt’s spokesman, Frank Lockwood, questioned whether the sample size was too small. The results, he said, probably won’t change Batt’s mind.

“Both of these polls indicate there isn’t a ground swell of support for grizzly reintroduction,” Lockwood said. “It’s his belief that this is not something the people of Idaho want.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Should grizzly bears be reintroduced?

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition

Cut in the Spokane edition

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