Idaho Fish and Game Director Steve Mealey says the federal government needs his permission to reintroduce grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, and he won’t go along.
Since January, the former grizzly researcher has suggested to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission several other avenues to halt the release of the bears near the Continental Divide.
“There’s a state law that says before any species can be reintroduced in the state, it requires a permit from the director,” he told a Friday taping of KTVB’s “Viewpoint” television program. “I won’t give them one.
“So, I’ll tell you straight up, they’ll have a confrontation with me and the department.”
“No person shall import into this state or release in the wild any species of wildlife except by a permit issued by the director,” the state law reads.
Laird Robinson of Montana, a Forest Service representative on a team working on the environmental impact statement for bear reintroduction, said he was not sure if the Idaho statute Mealey suggested exists.
“They didn’t require that on the wolf reintroduction,” Robinson said about Idaho leaders, adding none of the various options on grizzlies have been formally adopted.
“That’s an assumption that we’re opting for reintroduction, but we’re still in the comment period,” he said.
The alternative preferred by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls for releasing three to five bears annually into the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem as an experimental population.
With reproduction occurring only once every three years, recovery under that alternative may take a century, the agency says.
Robinson pointed out the National Environmental Policy Act requires impact studies and public comment.
“That’s why we have NEPA, to get the best input from the public to make that decision,” he said. “That’s a long way off. I’m taken aback by Steve’s comment. He knows the NEPA process very well.”
Mealey earlier suggested to the Fish and Game Commission that the best strategy to halt the process was to ask the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee to reverse its earlier decision designating the wilderness as a recovery area.
Earlier this month, Mealey said the recovery plan has a fatal flaw in that the draft environmental impact statement fails to match a study that led to the current proposal.
The study by Dan Davis and Paul Butterfield found north-central Idaho could support grizzlies after examining habitat from Kelly Creek southward.
The interagency committee decided in 1991 that the Selway-Bitterroot was a suitable recovery zone, which led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s reintroduction proposal.
But it fails to follow the earlier survey, Mealey said, because it cuts off the northern part of the study area, the richest bear habitat for food sources.
Mealey said no document exists to prove that the new recovery area to the south could support the bears.
Meanwhile, the federal recovery coordinator said wandering bears will not be tolerated in the fast-growing Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana.
Chris Servheen of the Fish and Wildlife Service said that while the experimental zone would extend to U.S. 93, through the middle of the valley, that did not mean biologists want bears roaming the area.
He said the experimental-area boundary was drawn wide because it allows bears found in that area to be dealt with as an experimental population - animals without the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Servheen said they would “tolerate no bears outside the forest boundary in the Bitterroot Valley.” Bears that do wander out would be captured and relocated, and repeat offenders would be destroyed, Servheen said.
“We only want bears on the wilderness side in Idaho,” he said.
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