Protecting grizzly bears across a 4,560-square-mile swath of the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains will require closing hundreds of miles of backcountry roads used by hunters and huckleberry pickers, the Forest Service says.
Grizzlies need secure areas to avoid contact with people, according to a new agency report. Despite 2-inch claws and a fierce reputation – the grizzly’s Latin name is Ursus arctos horribilis, or “horrible northern bear” – bears are typically the losers during encounters with humans.
Since 1982, people have killed 87 grizzlies in two grizzly bear recovery zones in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak mountains of northeastern Washington, Idaho and Western Montana.
Seventy percent of the human-caused deaths occurred near roads. Poaching and mistaking a grizzly for a black bear were two frequent reasons grizzlies were shot and killed on Forest Service lands. Self-defense by hunters was also a factor, particularly during elk season.
“Grizzly bears kill relatively few people, yet every year, we hear about grizzly deaths in the Northern Rockies,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Spokane-based Lands Council. “These bear mortalities are taking place near roads.”
Over the past decade, environmental groups brought a series of lawsuits against the Forest Service, arguing that the agency needed to do more to keep people and bears apart by restricting motorized access to prime habitat areas. The litigation triggered forest plan revisions in the Idaho Panhandle, Kootenai and Lolo national forests.
The plan is out in draft form. Public comments will be accepted through June 22.
Closing roads to protect habitat is controversial, particularly when it halts people’s ability to drive or ride an ATV to well-established huckleberry picking sites or hunting areas, said Karl Dekome, the Forest Service’s team leader. An earlier draft attracted more than 300 public comments.
“People have their favorite places out there that they like to use,” he said. “When you’re talking about closing that off, it can become emotional.”
The Forest Service reviewed two alternatives. Grizzlies would benefit most from barricading up to 1,800 miles of Forest Service roads; erecting gates on up to another 490 miles of roads; and eliminating motorized use on 57 miles of trails, according to the agency.
Forest Service officials, however, prefer a less restrictive plan that gates or barricades about 325 miles of road, while reopening other roads for motorized travel. About 30 miles of trail would close to motorized use. “It tries to strike a balance, providing sufficient habitat recovery for grizzly bears, but recognizing there are other issues and needs,” Dekome said.
Recreational activities would be hard-hit under the more restrictive plan, he said. Driving access to more than 22 developed recreation sites would be eliminated. The day-use area at Roman Nose, a 7,221-foot peak in Boundary County, is on the list. So are six campgrounds, three boat ramps and three picnic areas in the Kootenai National Forest.
Some hiking trails would effectively double in length. Snowmobile trails would be affected, because trail maintenance would be restricted during the summer months, Dekome said.
The ability to drive to the Lunch Peak lookout rental near Sandpoint is curtailed under both alternatives. But recreational impacts are much less severe in the Forest Service’s preferred plan, Dekome said.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the groups that sued the Forest Service, questions whether the agency’s preferred alternative is scientifically sound. Opening roads for timber sales would be allowed, said Liz Sedler, who works for the alliance in Sandpoint. She also said the grizzlies need bigger, undisturbed areas than the preferred alternative creates.
Grizzly bears are among the nation’s rarest mammals. Females don’t have cubs until age 6 or so. They produce young every other year. In 2006, about 46 grizzlies were believed to roam the Selkirk recovery zone, with another 40 in the Cabinet-Yaak recovery zone.
“These are small populations,” Sedler said. “That’s one reason it’s important to improve these standards so they actually help bears.”