More than 40 speakers at a public hearing over reintroducing the grizzly bear into Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains showed how polarizing the issue is.
While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service backs a compromise option to release three to five bears a year with some control over their behavior, most of those attending a Boise public hearing on Friday lined up on the ends.
“Back in the old days there was room for them,” said Floyd Ireland, who roamed Idaho grizzly country beginning in the 1930s. “If we bring him in now, he’s going to wander out a bit. This old-timer doesn’t like it.”
“If you want a sterilized, artificial environment, go to Disneyland,” was Michael Kauffman’s response to Ireland and other foes. “I’d expect it from industry, but it really disgusts me to hear hunters, backpackers or whatever say they’re scared.”
Fish and Wildlife prefers a plan that forms a citizen management committee overseeing the grizzlies. It would introduce them in the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem as a “nonessential experimental” population, meaning the bears could be moved if they attack livestock or killed if they threaten humans.
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission did not buy the committee idea on Friday, voting to send a letter to Fish and Wildlife reiterating its opposition to shipping in bruins. They said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt could override the committee’s decisions, and the bears might start eating endangered salmon in the backcountry.
Environmental groups such as the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Sierra Club condemn the compromise plan, saying it robs the bear of the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.
They favor natural reintroduction of grizzlies from neighboring areas, as well as maintaining roadless land corridors so they can migrate from northern Idaho down the Continental Divide.
Still, the compromise plan enjoys the support of other conservation groups and the timber industry.
Rich Day of the National Wildlife Federation, which with Defenders of Wildlife and timber interests crafted the compromise, called it “a significant breakthrough approach to the Endangered Species Act” because it gives control to those affected.
Dick Willhite, in the lumber business in the heart of bear country at Elk City, said he signed on to the citizen management plan because it is clear the bears are coming one way or another, and the plan gives the industry a voice.
“I fear the bureaucrats much more than I fear the bear,” he said. “I seriously believe this debate is not whether or not to have bears. The debate is who’s going to manage the bears.”