Keeping people away from grizzly bears is the goal of forest plan amendments for the Idaho Panhandle, Kootenai and Lolo national forests, which will restrict motor vehicle travel into prime grizzly habitat.
Forest Service officials say the restrictions could eventually close up to 102 miles of backcountry roads to public travel across a 4,560-square-mile swath of the three national forests. No decisions on specific road closures have been made at this time.
Despite their fearsome reputation, massive shoulders and razorlike claws, grizzlies are typically the losers during encounters with humans.
Since 1982, people have killed at least 97 grizzlies in two grizzly bear recovery zones in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak mountains of northeast Washington, Idaho and western Montana. Most of the deaths occurred within 1,500 feet of a road.
Roads bring more people into contact with grizzlies, resulting in higher rates of human-caused mortality for the federally protected bears, said Shanda Dekome, the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ ecosystem staff officer. By reducing road densities, the Forest Service expects to reduce poaching, incidents of hunters mistaking grizzlies for black bears and the number of bears that become habituated to human food sources.
Past road closures have already had positive results, leading to documented declines in human-caused deaths of grizzly bears on federal lands, said Jason Kirchner, a Forest Service spokesman.
The forest plan amendments were released Monday. Officials considered but rejected a proposal that would have barricaded up to 1,800 miles of Forest Service roads. That plan, though more protective of grizzlies, would have had a significant effect on outdoor recreation, including the possibility of campground closures.
The adopted plan “takes into consideration the social side of things,” said Mary Farnsworth, supervisor for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. “People use campgrounds, and they like to drive around looking for huckleberries.”
Over the past decade, environmental groups have 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 motor vehicle traffic into core grizzly habitat.
Farnsworth said the amendments honor what the scientific research says about reducing road densities while striving to retain access for outdoor recreation. Finalizing which roads will be closed could take up to eight years and will include opportunities for public comment, she said.
Recommendations from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee were included in the Forest Service’s decision-making. The interagency committee includes representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and other federal and state agencies.