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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Suit seeks fewer roads, more bears

As grizzly bears crawl into their dens for a winter nap, a legal fight has begun over federal plans to ensure their long-term survival.

The Lands Council of Spokane and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies of Missoula filed a lawsuit in federal court in Missoula on Monday accusing the U.S. Forest Service of failing to protect the Inland Northwest’s endangered bear populations.

In spring, the agency announced plans to close roads in bear habitat, but the goals fall far short of what’s needed, said Marc Fink, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center in Boise and co-counsel for the lawsuit. The plan would close seven to nine miles of roads in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

“These grizzly bears are on the brink of extinction and need much more aggressive actions and not just tinkering around the edges,” Fink said. “There’s just too many roads out there. They need to make hard decisions.”

An estimated 30 to 40 grizzly bears live in remote reaches of the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho and northeastern Washington. About the same number are believed to roam the Cabinet and Yaak mountains along the Montana-Idaho border.

In June, a male grizzly bear was shot illegally and killed north of Priest Lake, Idaho. The shooting remains under investigation.

Even the loss of one animal speeds up the possibility of extinction, said Mike Bader, a conservation consultant with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

“We can’t afford to have any mortalities of any kind,” Bader said. “Those two populations are in a tailspin and they’re spinning pretty fast.”

Poaching and accidental shootings in recent years – mostly black bear hunters picking the wrong target – are threatening to remove the bears from a landscape they’ve ruled for thousands of years. State and federal statistics show about three out of four bear deaths in the Inland Northwest are caused by humans, with most deaths occurring near roads. The Kootenai, Idaho Panhandle and Lolo national forests, which are the focus of the lawsuit, are crossed by 26,000 miles of roads, according to a statement issued by the conservation groups Monday.

Closing more forest roads in core habitat areas is the easiest way to help grizzlies, Bader said. Bears need more room to roam. Thousands of miles of roads will continue to be accessible in bear areas, he said. But even the mention of closing a mile of road sparks howls from the timber industry and a growing number of off-road motorized sports enthusiasts.

“These roads are something the agencies can do something about, but they’re not doing it, for political reasons,” Bader said. “There are some people who are glad when grizzlies are dead. … The Forest Service management has been guided by those sorts of fears. They’re catering to the most illegal, violent crowd out there.”

Closing roads would also help struggling caribou, lynx and bull trout populations, Bader said.

Regional Forest Service Spokeswoman Paula Nelson said the agency does not comment on pending lawsuits.

Bryon Holt, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Spokane, said roads might not be helping bears, but they’re only part of the problem.

“No roads would be best for grizzly bears, but they can tolerate a certain amount,” Holt said. “It’s not roads that kill bears, it’s people that kill bears.”

Boosting hunter education is one option, he said. Prospective bear hunters in Montana must pass a test before obtaining a license. No such program exists in Idaho, though hunter education instructors in bear country have been emphasizing the importance of proper identification.

Also important, Holt said, is reducing the chances of grizzlies meeting humans. This might mean installing better bear-proof garbage cans in campgrounds and educating homeowners on the dangers of leaving out dog food, bird feed or other bear snacks. Holt also pointed out that many of the bear deaths have occurred on private land, which is not controlled by the Forest Service.

Idaho Fish and Game Biologist Wayne Wakkinen, of Bonners Ferry, said even though the grizzly population has been listed as endangered since 1999, there’s some cause for optimism.

“If we look at the last 10 or 15 years, the population trend does appear to be up,” he said. “It’s expanding, but slowly. … I think we’re ahead of the curve.”

Based on the relatively small number of bears, some scientists predict the two Inland Northwest grizzly bear populations face a 95 percent chance of extinction, according to a statement issued by The Lands Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Wakkinen said wildlife population modeling is a “young science” and fraught with inaccuracies. He said the important figure to look at is overall population trends.

“I caution people about getting too concerned about the numbers. We don’t have the perfect data set. We don’t have perfect models,” he said. “Given evidence that we have an increased bear population, evidently things aren’t horrible for grizzly bears.”

Scientists have proposed transplanting up to 12 young female grizzlies between now and 2010 from Montana’s relatively healthy northern Continental Divide population to the state’s Cabinet Mountain area, but no plans are in the works for transplanting grizzlies into North Idaho, Wakkinen said.