A resolution opposing recent efforts to reintroduce the grizzly bear in Montana has gained enough momentum to pass a committee and House vote during this legislative session, despite overwhelming criticism from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many environmental organizations.
The resolution, presented by Representative Allan Walters (R-Hamilton), protests the release of grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church River-of-No-Return Wildernesses and calls for the removal of the grizzly bear from the threatened species list. At press time, the Senate Fish and Game Committee had not yet voted on the resolution. If the committee approves it, the full Senate has a chance to vote.
While the resolution maintains that the Bitterroot area does not provide adequate habitat or food sources for bears, Walters, in an interview with the Independent, focuses on the loss of access to public lands.
"The Endangered Species Act is being used to lock up more and more land," Walters says. "If they are not going to use the grizzly bear, they are going to use other animals, like the spotted owl. The latest I hear is the prairie dog-there is talk of letting the prairie dog be protected."
Walters says that the recovery plan for grizzlies in the Bitterroot is just one of many plans that deprive citizens of their access to public lands, a trend, he says, that stems from sources as diverse as the Department of the Interior and the United Nations.
"They are going to call our lands national parks, biospheres, core protection areas or world heritage sites," he says. "We are losing our country. People from other nations are controlling our country and they are using our Endangered Species Act to do it."
Walters isn't the only one who worries about the Endangered Species Act. Concerned About Grizzlies, a Bitterroot Valley group that represents 25 local organizations, sees the act as threatening industry as well.
"There are over 54,000 grizzlies in the North American ecosystem," president Richard Everett says. "We have to stop them from using the bear to stop timber, mining and agriculture industries-stuff that feeds America. They are using the grizzly bear to shut off areas so they have a private retreat."
Proponents of the resolution hope that management of the grizzly bear will pass from the federal government to the state government. According to Walters, state managers have allowed a grizzly hunting season in the past.
"Very few bears were taken by hunters," he says. "But when you stop hunting, you get the situation of bears habituating to people. Once a bear becomes a problem bear, it's always a problem bear.
"I'm not against grizzlies," Walters adds. "But we are the fastest growing county in Montana, so we know there will be conflict."
With conflict often comes financial damages. To compensate residents for loss of livestock or damage to property, Walters has included a final request in the resolution-the acceptance of liability for damages from the grizzly bear recovery program by the U.S. government.
Chris Servheen, grizzly bear coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the resolution is "unfortunate" and he wishes he could have talked to Walters and other residents about their fears and concerns.
"In general, the people that live with bears have fewer concerns than those that don't," Servheen says. "Certainly people have fears of bears. They are all legitimate concerns and we try to address all of those, especially in terms of the relative danger of living with bears. It is very low. You are more likely to be injured in the car on the way to the trailhead than by a bear on the trail."
The resolution is nonbinding, so its approval would not impact grizzly status in Montana; however, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, backers of grizzly recovery in the lower 48 states, adamantly opposes the resolution because, they say, it misrepresents public opinion.
"Even if the bill passes, it can't override federal law," says Alliance outreach director Bob Clark. "But it's scary because it sends a message on behalf of all Montanans that we feel this way about grizzly bears."
Executive Director Mike Bader, in a letter to the Montana Legislature, explained that at seven public hearings on grizzly reintroduction, more than 24,000 comments were received and about 76 percent were in favor of grizzly restoration in the Selway-Bitterroot.
At this point, the likelihood of grizzlies being reintroduced into the region is slim. But if that seems like just a dream to grizzly advocates, the alternative would be a nightmare to them. Three U.S. senators-including Conrad Burns of Montana-have demanded that the grizzly be crossed off the federal threatened species list.
The senators are using information from a study released last month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that, ironically, reveals sufficient food sources and habitat for about 300 bears in both wilderness areas. But the senators argue that the study also shows grizzlies faring well, no longer in need of protection.
With Republican senators, Montana legislators and residents in the Bitterroot Valley gaining attention for their efforts to end grizzly protection, the odds are stacked against the environmentalists, who say are not giving up on the great bear. They are just waiting, with fingers crossed, to see what happens in Washington, Helena and here at home, in the Bitterroot Valley.