The Power of Babble

Confusion and backpedaling follow last week’s report about shelving the Bitterroot grizzly plan


Has Gale Norton pulled a Christie Whitman?

Last week, an aide to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Norton told a Washington Post reporter that Norton was planning to shelve a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Montana and Idaho wilderness. Norton has now retracted that statement, according to a spokesman for Sen. Conrad Burns.

The Washington Post reported Norton’s comment on April 25. The following day, Montana reporters picked up the trail, only to find the Interior Department furiously backtracking.

Whitman, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, was forced earlier this year to withdraw her commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions when the Bush administration failed to back her up. Now Norton finds herself in the same boat, or perhaps the same woodshed, with Whitman.

The Post article stated that Norton was prepared to “shelve” the grizzly reintroduction plan, a plan hammered out by environmentalists, the timber industry, tribes, and local, state and federal officials in numerous public meetings held in Idaho and Montana over a period of years. Given the intense public involvement and the weighty Environmental Impact Statement that resulted, the word “shelve”—its meaning unclear—came across almost as an edict from an administration whose environmental policy seems to be all over the map. What the Clinton administration proposed, it seems, the Bush administration rejects, or at least tries to amend.

The day after the Post article ran, the Interior Department had softened its message to the point of obfuscation, sending out mixed signals on yet another environmental policy forged during the Clinton years.

Interior spokesman Mark Pfeifle said last week that the message had changed. The Department of the Interior is no longer talking about shelving the grizzly reintroduction plan. Instead, it has shifted the focus away from “shelving” and on to the unresolved lawsuit filed last January in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. by Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. He wants the griz plan thrown out.

“As you probably know, we’re in litigation with the state of Idaho with the reintroduction plan that was approved by the last administration,” said Pfeifle. “At some point we want resolution. When we’re sued by a state we have to listen to those concerns. That’s Secretary Norton’s credo, to listen to all sides.”

But wasn’t the griz plan worked out by many competing interests over many years? Yes, said Pfeifle, but the Idaho lawsuit is indication that the states weren’t satisfied with federal action.

And in this pro-states-rights administration, apparently, one governor’s concerns take precedence over the public hearings process.

Kempthorne’s lawsuit names the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as defendants. It relies on two arguments: that the federal government violated both the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when the grizzly bear plan was approved late last year.

The feds violated the 10th Amendment and the state of Idaho’s sovereignty, according to the lawsuit, in that it unconstitutionally compels state fish and game personnel to carry out a federal program. That was the same 10th Amendment argument that former Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz argued before the U.S. Supreme Court several years ago when he challenged—and overturned—a section of the federal Brady handgun control bill.

Kempthorne also accuses the feds of violating NEPA by failing to adequately disclose the environmental and economic impacts of transplanting bears to the Idaho and Montana wilderness. The potential of harm, not only to humans but to the existing grizzly populations that will form the source of the supply, has not been addressed, nor has the possibility of land use restrictions, he says in his lawsuit.

Several environmental groups have joined the defendants as intervenors in the pending case.

Whether the Bush administration has the heart to defend its interior department against a lawsuit that the administration considers more a states-rights issue than a legal requirement to uphold the Endangered Species Act is, Pfeifle said, “a good question.”

The Clinton administration “grabbed the headlines, and we must deal with the heartaches,” Pfeifle said. “The first concern is the grizzlies and how do we make sure they have an environment where they can grow and prosper, and that they’re going to be put into a place where they won’t harm people, or be harmed by people.”

To anwer that question, the Department of the Interior could have asked one of its own employees, Dr. Chris Servheen, the Missoula-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who wrote the grizzly reintroduction EIS.

But no one from the department contacted Servheen. Or Sens. Max Baucus, Conrad Burns, or Rep. Dennis Rehberg, for that matter. All four are out of the loop over the notion that Interior would—or could—shelve a plan arrived at after long years of painstaking public consensus.

“I don’t know anymore than you do,” said Servheen. “I’m waiting like everybody else to hear what it means. This is all at higher levels—beyond biology.”

J.P. Donovan, press aide to Sen. Burns, said Burns, as chairman of the Interior appropriations subcommittee, met with Norton two days before the Post article ran, but their discussion focused solely on the federal Payment In Lieu of Taxes program; she never discussed grizzly bear reintroduction at the meeting. “We’re still trying to figure out what’s going on,” Donovan said last week.

But when contacted a second time last Monday Donovan said: “There were a lot of rumblings going on over the weekend. I heard she [Norton] retracted the statement. Basically, the story came from a conversation with one of her staff aides.”

A press aide to freshman Rep. Rehberg said last week that new federal appointees and staffers are still trying to find their place in the young administration, and off-the-cuff comments are the fallout from all the jockeying.

Rehberg, who e-mailed his response to the Norton comment, said, “Grizzly reintroduction is a complex and often contentious issue. At present, we have no clear indication from the administration as to whether or not they will shelve plans to reintroduce grizzlies into the Bitterroot-Selway—so I can’t speak to that report specifically. That being said, I think the most important thing we can do is to make sure local folks have a voice in management. We need to find a balance between habitat maintenance and property rights. This can be achieved only when we work to find common ground between conservation, recreation, industry, local governments and other affected parties.”

Sen. Baucus’ press secretary Bill Lombardi said Baucus knows nothing of Norton’s plans, or would-be plans, to shelve or not to shelve. Nor did Lombardi or Baucus hear that Norton had retracted her statement.

Like former Montana governor Marc Racicot, Baucus approved the reintroduction plan because the lengthy public process resulted in consensus.

“In the past, Max has supported the reintroduction of the grizzly, and the former governor did as well, because basically this was a local decision and a collaborative interest involving timber interests, environmentalists, tribes, local officials and federal officials,” Lombardi said. “That’s what Max liked about it. We don’t know what the Interior secretary’s intending right now.”

If and when the grizzly reintroduction plan is ever implemented, it will result in the transplantation of five grizzly bears a year for five years in the Frank Church-River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness areas. The first five bears will be relocated in early summer 2002.


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