The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is intent on trying to find out if grizzly bears are moving back into central Idaho on their own. If they are, wildlife officials hope this will eliminate their need to revisit the contentious issue of reintroducing grizzlies to this area.
The Selway-Bitterroot region in central Idaho and Western Montana is one of six areas created by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a group of state and federal wildlife officials, for recovery of grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act. The Selkirks north of Spokane are another.
Grizzlies were apparently wiped out in the Bitterroots by 1956. Assuming that our national policy continues to favor the rescue of threatened or endangered species, biologists uniformly agree that a viable population of grizzlies in the Bitterroots would go a long way toward saving this symbol of wildness throughout the Inland Empire. The Bitterroots could stitch back together the remnant bear populations that remain in Yellowstone to the southeast, and the Cabinet Mountains to the north. Two of the biggest threats to any endangered species are fragmented habitat and genetic isolation.
Ten years ago an unlikely coalition of wildlife, timber and sports groups agreed on a plan to reintroduce grizzlies into the Bitterroots. After a long and raucous process, the Clinton administration adopted this plan, with minor changes, at the eleventh hour. It called for bringing in five bears per year for five years. But the plan was never put into effect. Six months into the Bush administration, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton shelved it. She never rescinded the plan; she just did nothing.
Now, as a new administration prepares to take office, questions naturally arise about whether the Bitterroots plan might be dusted off and revived.
But Chris Servheen, who heads the grizzly bear recovery program, says he had no plans to do this. Instead, he is preoccupied with a project that is destined to go nowhere. He is trying to confirm if grizzlies are migrating into central Idaho on their own.
Last summer biologists under the guidance of Servheen and the bear committee set up 51 remote cameras in the Clearwater backcountry to see if they could photograph a grizzly. Over the summer cameras snapped lots of pictures of black bears, wolves, coyotes, deer and moose, but no grizzlies. The great photo contest continues next summer.
At 68 separate sites biologists set up hair snag stations instead of cameras, using a technique common in bear research. They set a bait with a strong scent encircled by a wire that snags a few hairs from any animal that comes to investigate. This winter a DNA lab is analyzing these sample hairs.
This search for grizzlies in an area where they were thought to be extinct was triggered by the surprise killing of a 400-pound male grizzly in September 2007. A hunter from Tennessee who apparently didn’t know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly, shot it near the head of Kelly Creek. Biologists were even more surprised when DNA results revealed that the bear had made his way down from the Selkirks.
It is natural enough for wildlife officials to wonder if any more grizzlies have found their way into central Idaho. But the great bear hunt is hardly a project that can lead anywhere.
Male grizzlies are notorious for their wanderlust. Searching for mates, they can easily cover a hundred miles. They are also bolder about crossing roads and other barriers that cautious female bears avoid. The typical male’s home range is 200 to 400 square miles, while a female averages only 70 square miles. Moreover, the home range of a female grizzly always overlaps part of her mother’s range.
It takes both sexes to make a population. Based on the slow dispersal of females, it would require many years, if ever, for a breeding population of grizzlies to re-establish themselves in central Idaho. And even if one female took up residence, all her cubs and their cubs would be related, creating what biologists call a “genetic bottleneck.” Obviously it takes much more to create a healthy and sustainable population.
It is clear that those entrusted with implementing the Endangered Species Act are thinking wishfully if they hope than can somehow do nothing in the Bitterroots by waiting for grizzly bears to save themselves. As interesting as it may be to find out about natural migration into the area, bringing grizzly bears back to the Bitterroots will require humans.
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