An environmental group has petitioned the federal government to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot mountains of Idaho and Montana, saying the region is critical to the bears’ recovery in the Lower 48 states.
Re-establishing grizzlies in the Selway-Bitterroots would provide a link between genetically isolated bear populations in Yellowstone National Park and the Northern Rockies, said Andrea Santarsiere, the Center for Biological Diversity’s staff attorney. Past studies indicate that the 16 million-acre region could support 300 to 600 grizzlies.
“There are large expanses of wilderness; it’s heavily forested with low road densities,” Santarsiere said. “It has everything that you look for in potential suitable habitat for grizzly bears.”
In 2007, a grizzly was shot by a hunter in the region, which stretches from north-central Idaho to western Montana and includes both the Frank Church River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas. But biologists’ efforts to document grizzlies in the area the following summer were unsuccessful.
The idea of reintroducing grizzlies to the region has been proposed before.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared a plan in 2000 that called for rebuilding the Selway-Bitterroot’s grizzly population to at least 280 bears, which agency biologists estimated would take 50 to 100 years to accomplish. The agency planned to release 25 bears into the area.
But the plan was opposed by then-Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who filed a suit over the reintroduction. In 2001, the Bush Administration halted reintroduction efforts.
Fish and Wildlife officials did not return phone calls Thursday. Santarsiere said the Center for Biological Diversity hopes to receive a response from the agency within a couple of months.
Grizzly populations are estimated at 1,500 to 1,800 in the Lower 48 states. The bears have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1975.
Last summer, the National Park Service announced it was beginning a three-year study of reintroducing grizzly bears to the North Cascades of Washington. Grizzlies have been seen in the Cascades north of the Canadian border, but not on the Washington side for several years, park service officials said.
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