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

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.

"There is unprecedented consensus of scientific opinion calling on the Interior Secretary to reverse course and reinstate the grizzly bear recovery plan, developed over years of public and expert review and comment," according to Tom Franklin, the wildlife policy director for the Wildlife Society.

"It is disturbing that a decision of this magnitude would be made without consultation with knowledgeable scientists inside and outside of the Department of the Interior." The Wildlife Society is part of a coalition backing the reintroduction, which includes the American Society of Mammalogists, the International Association for Bear Research and Management, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Bear Specialists Group, the Society for Conservation Biology, the Wildlife Management Institute, and others.

Biology Clashes with Politics

There are currently five populations of grizzly bears in the contiguous United States. Three groups contain only 15 to 50 bears, not enough individuals to ensure long-term survival. The Yellowstone ecosystem and the Northern Continental divide ecosystem, comprised primarily of the Bob Marshall/Glacier National Park wilderness complex in Montana, are each home to enough grizzlies that the populations are considered sustainable.

Wildlife advocates argue that establishing a third population in the Bitterroot would create a wildlife corridor that enabled the bears to move between habitats, strengthening all three populations and insuring the genetic diversity essential to long-term survival.

"It comes down to basic biology," said Martin Smith, a grizzly bear biologist with Defenders of Wildlife (DOW). "Grizzly bears have huge habitat requirements and they are relatively few in number. For the long-term viability of grizzly populations, its important that we have sustainable populations in as many places as we can. By removing the Bitterroot, you're eliminating a good habitat that could sustain a large population of bears."

The reintroduction plan was always controversial, and the Bush administration's decision to cancel it has the support of the governors of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, who all oppose the Bitterroot reintroduction plan, and want the bear removed from the Endangered Species list.

"We're concerned because the plan doesn't specify where these bears will come from," said Mark Snider, spokesperson for Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne. "If they relocate bears from Yellowstone, for example, then that would reduce the population in that area and a species that's really recovered wouldn't be able to be de-listed. That doesn't make a lot of sense."

Public Opinion Battle

Human safety has also been raised as an issue.

"People adjacent to these wilderness areas are concerned, and we're concerned with the human impact of the plan, with what happens when people and bears meet," Snider said. "If bears move into these areas on their own that's great, we'll certainly afford them the protection they deserve. But, we're concerned with recreational users encountering relocated grizzly bears."

Wildlife advocates point out that according to figures compiled by DOW, there has only been one grizzly fatality in the last 50 years in Montana's heavily used Bob Marshall wilderness—an area roughly comparable in usage to the Bitterroot wilderness.

Public opinion appears to be firmly in favor of the bears. The USFWS received nearly 30,000 comments on the proposed reintroduction; nearly 98 percent expressed support for the plan to reintroduce the bears.

"The Norton people are getting a lot of pressure on this, because it was such a multi-stakeholder plan, involving so many different groups," said Smith. "So it might not be dead yet."

But passions run high on both sides of the issue, says Smith.

"It's a big animal with teeth and claws, so it brings out extremes of emotions on both sides. You see irrational love, and irrational fear of these bears as well."

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