Few Grizzlies Left on Land Traveled by Lewis and Clark

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 3, 2002

When the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery began exploring the unknown lands west of the Mississippi River nearly two centuries ago, one of the expedition's charges was to report on new species of wildlife.

On May 4, 1805, expedition members killed the largest bear they had yet seen.

Meriwether Lewis described the encounter with the grizzly bear in his journal, calling it "a most tremendious looking anamal, and extreemly hard to kill."

The explorers encountered plenty of grizzlies on their trek to the Pacific, and killed at least 43. In those days, that number scarcely made a dent in the large grizzly population.

But today, the mighty grizzly, once an icon of the American wilderness, is in trouble. Wildlife biologists estimate that at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition as many as 50,000 grizzlies roamed from the Great Plains to the Pacific, and from Mexico to Alaska. Today that number is around a thousand, and their range has been reduced to five separate patches of habitat in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington.

Bringing Back the Bears

Although there are between 30,000 to 40,000 grizzlies in Alaska, and 20,000 to 30,000 in Canada, the American Grizzly Bear, Ursus Arctos horribilis, in the contiguous United States is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

To the dismay of wildlife advocates, the first major wildlife decision made under the Bush administration was to cancel a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem, a vast swath of bear-suitable wilderness located along the borders of Idaho and Montana.

Wildlife advocates say establishing a new population of grizzlies in the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem is vitally important to the continued survival of grizzly populations in the lower 48 states.

The reintroduction plan had been negotiated over a period of six years during the Clinton administration. Conservationists, scientists, federal and state wildlife officials, industry representatives and local residents took part in the negotiations, and the plan was adopted by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 2000.

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton reversed the decision and announced in June 2001 that the plan would be shelved in favor of a "No Action" approach to conservation.

The recovery plan she supports calls for improved management of grizzly bears on public lands, continued genetic research, increased population monitoring, public education, and implementation of the recovery plans for each population.

Continued on Next Page >>


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