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Finding the bear facts no easy task

by Brad Fuqua & Western News
| September 28, 2010 6:34 PM

Grizzly bears seem to be holding all of the cards.

In the constant fight to improve a struggling economy, local leaders routinely run into barriers that revolve around grizzly bears. Timber projects get stuck in court and a major mine proposal remains in limbo while Lincoln County copes with the highest unemployment rate in the state.

Many fingers point to grizzly bears as the culprit. It’s not uncommon to see the image of a grizzly shot out of a backcountry sign. And it’s believed that some just might prefer the “shoot, shovel and shut-up” mentality of how to deal with the animals.

During a four-hour discussion among federal, state and local officials on Thursday in Libby, all parties involved seemed ready to find solutions. It’s the million-dollar question – how many grizzlies live in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem?

“Grizzlies have a place here but humans have a place here, also,” Lincoln County Commissioner John Konzen said. “We think an economy can function with an endangered species.”

But answers are few and the public’s tempers are running hot.

Wayne Kasworm, whose work as a local grizzly bear specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dates back to 1983, doesn’t offer any guesswork. Kasworm provides information that he can prove and his data reveals a known grizzly population of 40 to 45 – depending on the timeframe for the count.

“From 2000-08, we’re looking at a population of a minimum number of around 40 bears that we can identify,” Kasworm said. “Of that, there are probably 16 to 18 in the Cabinets with the balance in the Yaak. There are more in the Yaak than the Cabinets … it appears that the population is doing a little better up there, it’s a little denser.”

Just last month, Mines Management, which manages activities for the Montanore Mine, released a grizzly population study based on DNA extracted from scat that suggests much higher numbers than those cited by Kasworm.

In the Montanore study area, which represents 11 percent of the Cabinet Mountains, DNA results indicated eight individual grizzly bears. Ed Kline, a biologist who consults on Mines Management projects, believes those numbers indicate a higher population than previously believed.

“You can only do so much with that data … but it tells you there were a whole lot more than eight bears in that recovery area,” Kline said. “It’s an indication that a number such as 18 for the Cabinets may be a fairly conservative, low estimate.”

Still, Kline admitted that it’s difficult to get a good handle on the bear population.

“Our primary techniques have been capture, radio collaring and more recently, hair snagging and DNA-based techniques to get a better angle on what bears are out there,” Kasworm said. “Telemetry can give you an idea of not only how many bears are out there but also individuals and how they are surviving.”

Kasworm said reproductive rates and survival rates are key statistics when it comes to population trends.

Mines Management contracted with scientists from the University of Washington and Kline Environmental Research to assess the grizzly bear population during the summer of 2009. Bear scat was collected using specially-trained dogs in an area covering approximately 419 square miles in and around the region.

“This doesn’t replace anything … bear scat is just another tool,” said Eric Klepfer, who manages environment activities for Mines Management. “The radio collars tell you important information, the hair snags are important. None of these are going to replace anything. There’s no one sampling method that I see that’s going to answer all the questions.”

Klepfer said collected bear scat would be shared with U.S. Fish and Wildlife so another analysis could be done.

“We would like to take that scat data and take it to our labs,” Kasworm said. “I’ll put an offer on the table to say that we’re more than happy to take samples; we’ll pay for it and do those comparisons.”

The DNA results from the bear scat can be compared to information already on file with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. It could lead to the identification of new bears or confirm the existence of known grizzlies.

“We are definitely interested … I’ll find out what samples they have and figure out how to get that arranged,” Klepfer said.

In all, 998 scat samples were collected with the majority from black bears.

Paul Bradford, Kootenai National Forest supervisor, gave a detailed presentation on projects and potential for the future. He said recent grizzly-related litigation has created difficulties.

“We think we have a good strategy to resolve those concerns,” Bradford said. “Once we get back in business, we feel we will have in the neighborhood of 400,000 acres or so of timberland to go do work on.”

Lands tentatively suitable for timber across all of the Kootenai stands at 1,718,500, Bradford said. The approach to grizzly bear issues is covered in the forest plan.

“We will be publishing a draft EIS on the forest plan that should come out toward the end of this year,” Bradford said. “We hope to finalize a decision in either late 2011 or early 2012. That will be a regional forester decision.”

In a nutshell, getting an accurate grizzly count would help Forest Service projects.

“Typically, plaintiffs start out with their concerns about the size of the bear population,” Bradford said. “Anything we can do to get a better handle on the number of bears is good from our perspective because it helps us tell the story better for the judge.”

Bradford said it’s important to reduce the grizzly’s mortality rate.

“When we’re losing bears out of the population, that’s a big hit for us,” Bradford said. “We need to find ways to clean up these situations. On the forest, we’re looking at sanitation issues in our campgrounds … it’s been a tough year for bears.”

State Rep. Chas Vincent hopes to see Montana’s congressional delegation lead the charge to finding a way to fund grizzly studies that could even expand into Idaho and Washington.

Larry Anderson, a field representative for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, also wants to see a thorough study.

“We would want to see the Idaho and Washington delegation come on board with this so we can do these other areas,” Anderson said. “Like we said, these animals don’t know where the borders are.”

Tony Berget, Lincoln County commissioner, hopes all can work together to find answers.

“I really believe that all of us here would really like to work with you guys,” Berget said. “It’s all in our best interest to see the grizzly bear recovered. We want to ask tough questions and hear some answers. Our goal is to help you … I don’t want you to think of us as an adversary.”