Selway-Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Reintroduction

Posted: Sep 1, 2001
Written by: 
Updated by Carol Daly
 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
photo by Chris Servheen

The roughly 10,000 square mile Bitterroot Ecosystem includes much of central Idaho, a part of western Montana, and has at its core the Bitterroot-Selway and Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas, the largest block of wilderness habitat in the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. "Of all remaining unoccupied grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48 States, this area in the Bitterroot Mountains has the best potential for grizzly bear recovery, primarily due to the large wilderness area. As such, the Bitterroot Ecosystem offers excellent potential to support a healthy population of grizzly bears and to boost long-term survival and recovery prospects for this species in the contiguous United States."  From the November 17, 2000, Record of Decision Concerning Grizzly Bear Recovery in the Bitterroot Ecosystem

US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Resource Organization on Timber Supply (ROOTS) , Intermountain Forest Association, and other conservationists, scientists, state wildlife officials, labor union representatives, and area residents.

Objective: In 1989 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in furtherance of the goals of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, proposed reintroducing grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana and central Idaho. The proposal garnered controversy among area residents and public officials concerned about human safety and possible public land restrictions.  In an effort to address these concerns, a coalition of conservationists, timber mill owners, and timber workers sought a solution that would work for people as well as bears.

History:  Grizzlies once roamed freely across western North America, but by the time of their proposed reintroduction into the Bitterroot Ecosystem the USFWS estimated that only 1,000 to 1,100 remained in the western U.S.  The remaining grizzlies reportedly existed in six discrete populations in parts of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington.  There had been no sign of bears in the Bitterroot Ecosystem since 1946, however, despite the habitat's suitability. When the federal government proposed to reintroduce grizzlies in 1989, the response from residents in nearby communities was  far from enthusiastic.  Some feared the bears themselves, a sentiment reflected in then-Governor of Idaho Dirk Kempthorne's 2000 statement, "We oppose the introduction of this flesh-eating, antisocial animal.  This is probably the first federal policy that knowingly can and will lead to the death of citizens."   Others feared the government regulation that would come with the bears and a resultant loss or restriction of access to the valuable natural resources of the area which undergird its major industries - timber and recreation. 

In an effort to turn the tide of local public opinion, in 1993, conservationists Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation and Hank Fischer (then with Defenders of Wildlife), initiated a collaborative process to seek a solution that would work for both people and bears.  They first approached Dan Johnson, then-director of Resource Organization on Timber Supply (ROOTS), an Idaho timber industry organization with significant labor union participation.  In the ensuing months, the collaboration expanded to include representatives of local sawmill and paperworkers unions, the Intermountain Forest Association (IFA), and others.

One thing seemed clear: grizzly bears were almost certain to return to the Bitterroot ecosystem at some point, either relocated there by the government or finding it themselves as they widened their range in search of food and security.   "If the bears show up on their own, they bring with them all the prioritization of a threatened species, so their use [of the land] trumps any other need," explains Jim Riley of IFA. "We proposed to reintroduce a test population." 

Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act provides a provision for the introduction of an experimental population that "is wholly separate geographically from nonexperimental populations of the same species" if that action "will further the conservation" of the species.  If the experimental population is deemed "not essential to the continued existence of a species" it is treated as though it were not a listed threatened species but rather "as a species proposed to be listed," thus affording more management flexibility. 

After more than a year of meetings, the collaborative group had a plan. A small experimental population of grizzly bears drawn from Canada or other existing U.S. populations would be brought into the Bitterroot Ecosystem, and a citizens committee would work with the USFWS  to address any management issues. "That wasn't in just our interest on the forestry side," explains Riley.  "Our conservation partners felt that showing some flexibility through using a citizens committee would allow them, working with us, to demonstrate that bears could use this area, propagate, etc. without all the kinds of conflicts that people were worried about." If the plan was implemented, it would represent the first time the USFWS agreed to share endangered species management authority with a citizen group representing local and state interests.  

Accomplishments:  The collaborative's proposal became the preferred alternative in the Environmental Impact Statement performed by the USFWS to evaluate the reintroduction project.  On November 17, 2000, the USFS released its Record of Decision selecting the preferred alternative. The decision states, "The ‘experimental population' designation gives the Service the flexibility to promulgate a special rule that applies only to the reintroduced population. Protections established by the special rule can thus be tailored to specific areas and specific local conditions.... [The] Service can institute management practices that address local concerns about excessive government regulation on private lands, uncontrolled livestock depredation, excessive big game predation, and lack of State government and local citizen involvement in the program."

The Record of Decision gave the Citizen Management Committee with implementation management responsibilities in consultation with the governors of Idaho and Montana.  The decision specified that the CMC would be comprised of local citizen and agency representatives from Federal and State agencies and the Nez Perce Tribe and that the CMC would be responsible for recommending changes in land-use standards and guidelines as necessary for grizzly management. While recommendations made by the CMC to land and wildlife management agencies would be subject to review and final decisions on implementation would be made by the responsible agency, the decision provided the CMC with a significant role in grizzly management.  

 Proposed recovery area
Challenges/Constraints:  Public reaction was swift, loud, and widely divergent. The CMC was variously described as: an innovative, more equitable sharing of authority and responsibility among local citizens and government officials; an abdication of federal authority to a cabal of commodity-dominated locals at the expense of diverse national interests; and a clever ruse by the Secretary of the Interior to give the illusion of local control while maintaining absolute federal authority.  The Governor of Montana lauded the decision while the State of Idaho filed suit to prevent any grizzly bear reintroduction.

On June 22, 2001, with a new administration and Congress in Washington, the USFWS issued a "Reevaluation" of the previous November's Record of Decision, determining that reintroducing grizzlies in the Bitterroot Ecosystem was "not prudent or consistent with our recovery priorities."  But, the agency reevaluation continued, "We remain firmly committed to the recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48 States.  However, we strongly believe that the only way to effectively recover grizzly bears is with the help and support of affected states."

And so it remained until September 2007, when Montana's Missoulian headlined, "Grizzly Shot in Selway-Bitterroot."   The shot was fired by a hunter from Tennessee who thought he was aiming at a black bear.  Chris Servheen, the USFWS's grizzly bear recovery coordinator commented, "It's hard to tell where the bear came from or how long it had been there.  The area is excellent grizzly bear habitat...The bear could have been there for a long period of time without anyone knowing it was there." Servheen said it's likely there could be other grizzly bears in the area.  "If one bear was able to make its way there, I think it's very likely that others could, too," he said.

Apparently the bears returned to the Selway-Bitterroot on their own.  Although this may make collaborative solutions more difficult than managing an experimental population may have, some of the members of the CMC collaborative are planning to get together again to assess the current situation to determine what might still be done to make things work for both bears and people.

For more information see:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Record of Decision for Grizzly Bear Recovery

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery page
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