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Enviros express concerns over grizzly relocation

| April 1, 2004 11:00 PM

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

The environmental representatives to the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Citizen¹s Committee expressed concerns over a proposal to transplant bears into the Cabinet Mountains during a meeting on Monday night.

Although many of the participants were in favor of grizzly augmentation, the primary concerns were with the habitat quality in the Cabinets and road densities.

The committee, made up of a cross section of community members ranging from loggers and outfitters to other interested parties, has been meeting in Libby since 1989, discussing issues facing grizzly bears in northwestern Montana.

Augmentation efforts from 1990 to 1994, moved four grizzly bears into the Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Zone. After these tests of the transplant technique, Wayne Kasworm, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bear biologist, discussed the possibility of future efforts with the committee.

Jim Williams, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks regional wildlife program manager, has been a strong proponent of bolstering the struggling grizzly population in the Cabinets, estimated at 15 bears or fewer. The citizen¹s committee first began discussing the possibility last December.

³It¹s an opportunity we have right now in northwestern Montana,² Williams said. ³We think we have the tools in our toolbox right now to help these Cabinet Mountain bears. The question is, do you want us to use these tools.²

The committee has been discussing a variety of issues facing grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Zone while brainstorming methods to help accelerate the recovery of the animals. Augmentation is one option the group has examined.

Cesar Hernandez of the Cabinet Resource group acknowledged that augmentation would ultimately be necessary for the survival of the Cabinet grizzlies, but said the habitat would need to be improved before transplantation was viable.

³Protect the habitat and then augment,² he said. ³If we don¹t protect the habitat, we¹re wasting our time.²

Hernandez cited a proposed mine at Rock Creek, residential development in the Bull Lake area, and Forest Service gate breaches as contributors to an inadequate habitat for the bears.

³Bears die because people can get to them and kill them,² he said, adding that motorized vehicle users pushing for more access in the forests create another obstacle.

Other group members felt different measures should be taken to aid grizzlies before augmentation, including limiting human caused mortality, implementing complete access management, addressing sanitation issues on public and private lands, enhancing population linkage across highways for connectivity, and increasing outreach and public information.

Williams and his staff were surprised by the negative responses from the environmental representatives.

³The Cabinet Mountain population has shown no growth in 20 years despite road and habitat management,² Williams said. ³It¹s time to bolster the population or move on with other grizzly bear conservation priorities.

³There is no question that several female bears can be removed from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems each year,² he said. ³The augmentation effort can be accomplished with minimal effort and cost because state bear managers routinely handle candidate bears in and around the NCDE.²

Kasworm said ideally one or two grizzlies would be transplanted into the Cabinet Mountains portion of the recovery zone each year. The desired grizzlies would be young and female, with no history of conflict with people. Candidates for transplantation would be caught through normal research or other trapping.

The biologists on hand at the meeting were in agreement that the habitat in the Cabinets would support the augmentation efforts. Chris Servheen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator, said that without augmentation, the population would most likely not recover naturally.

³When you get 10 to 15 bears in an isolated area, the population is looking at extinction,² he said. ³The only way to recover is to not only transplant bears, but to do all of the things we¹ve been talking about. We will have access to potential candidate bears this summer.²

A few members said they believed the decision to transplant bears was hasty and more data should be collected before beginning the process. Other attendees expressed their concerns with the legalities of moving endangered species and questioned newly-released bear management unit standards.

The Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Zone contains roughly 2,600 square miles of land. Grizzlies roam anywhere from 50 to 800 square miles, depending on the bear¹s gender. If the population for the zone is increased to 100 bears, the biologists¹ target mark following years of augmentation, the agency specialists said there would be adequate land for the animals to use.

Williams maintained that the proposed augmentation contains no hidden agendas, but was hatched by his staff and Kasworm as an immediately feasible and practical method for helping the population recover.

³I brought this forward to empower the group, to let it be your baby,² Williams said. ³We haven¹t given up on the Cabinets. Rather this is simply an accepted population management tool used by the state throughout Montana.²

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Regional Grizzly Bear Manager Tim Manley said that comparatively, the Cabinets offer more than adequate habitat for the bears.

³I¹ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to keep bears alive,² he said. ³The last thing I would want to do is jeopardize the bears. I consider the Cabinets excellent bear habitat.²

Servheen said efforts are being put forth to seek more easements across private land for grizzlies and other wildlife to utilize. Although costly, he said the easements are vital and acknowledged that the greatest threat to grizzlies are residential development and private land, two places where a bulk of the conflicts occur between humans and bears.

Lincoln County Commissioner John Konzen felt that augmentation is important, but said the public should be informed each step of the way and given a platform by which to voice their opinions.

³It¹s key to get those folks on board,² he said. ³I just think people need to know what we¹re attempting to do.²