The Idaho Statesman Rocky Barker column, Grizzly bears in Idaho

By December 23, 2014 February 15th, 2016 No Comments

Dec. 22–Sometime in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is going to propose — for the second time — removing grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the federal threatened species list.

This would return management of these fierce and awesome Idahoans over to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Environmental groups were able to stop the last delisting in federal court and will certainly try again. Even though the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone area is likely more than 700 bears and expanding, environmentalists worry about how changes in habitat will affect bear populations.

Whitebark pines — and their nuts, which are a key bear food source — are disappearing across the West due to climate change. The only way to address that would be a massive management effort in the region’s wilderness areas, which is unlikely.

Yellowstone cutthroat trout, another mainstay of the bear’s multi-faceted diet, have been pushed out by the explosion of the lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Managers are getting that under control, but there still aren’t enough fish to meet bears’ needs.

Then there are the 10 regional Indian tribes, including Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannocks, who have told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they will oppose delisting if it allows hunting of “sacred” bears that have spiritual meaning protected under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said he is disappointed the tribes took that position without talking to the states.

“For our management of grizzly bears, our preferred method is going to be hunting,” Moore said.

This month Idaho took an important step to show it’s ready to manage grizzly bears. A Fremont County jury convicted a local hunter for shooting a grizzly, even though he said the bear charged him. Nearly every grizzly bear shot by hunters in the Yellowstone area is said to be charging, and even the federal government has found it hard sometimes to get a conviction from a jury.

So when a Fremont County jury believed the Fish and Game warden who presented evidence that the bear was not moving when it was shot, state conservation officers were excited.

“This is the first case in Idaho where there was a successful prosecution in state court of a grizzly bear taken unlawfully,” said Doug Peterson, a conservation warden. “From the officers’ detailed investigation, through partnership with Fremont County’s prosecutor, this sets the record straight that Idaho is prepared to manage grizzly bears as a big game species in Idaho.”

Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition Thursday asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a new rule to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem in central Idaho and western Montana. This after the Department of Fish and Game went on record saying it did not want grizzly bears in the Central Idaho wilderness areas.

The center and its Idaho attorney, Andrea Santarsiere, want the agency to bring back a plan from 1996 and 2000 for reintroducing the great bear to the wilderness where it was eliminated in the 1950s. The George W. Bush administration killed the earlier plan after Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who went on to become Interior secretary, said he did not want “massive, flesh-eating carnivores” reintroduced in his state.

“Grizzly bears live in less than 4 percent of their historic range and need to be reintroduced into the Selway-Bitterroot to have any shot at real recovery,” Santarsiere said.

The problem? The grizzly petition comes nearly 20 years after wolves were reintroduced at Corn Creek in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. We have 20 years of history with wolf reintroduction, and it has not been encouraging. The polarized sides — wolf lovers and wolf haters — have dominated the discussion.

Grizzly bears may well return to central Idaho, if they haven’t already. Whether the Fish and Game Commission wants them there or not, the Endangered Species Act will protect them if they are there.

Whatever happens regarding delisting the Yellowstone grizzlies, a key issue will be how well the bears are protected outside of the Yellowstone area.

“The question is, where will bears end up?” Moore said. “That becomes a social issue as much as a biological issue.”

We certainly don’t want grizzly bears roaming through Rexburg. But Idahoans are going to have to embrace these living examples of our state’s wild character if we are going to convince federal officials to remove them from Endangered Species Act protection. That will mean learning to live with them when we go into their homes in Idaho’s backcountry.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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