Bitterroot Ecosystem Map
By Joseph Mussulman
On November 17, 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision to release five grizzly bears into the 7,000-square-mile recovery area–the combined Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Areas–during each of five years beginning in the summer of 2002. They expect it will take between 50 and 100 years to reach the region's carrying capacity of 280 to 300 grizzlies.
A committee of citizens appointed by the governors of Montana and Idaho, will "manage" the grizzly bear recovery process. Some critics approve of this feature of the plan, since it seems to represent a move away from bureaucratic management–keeping the government out of local issues. Opponents predict that it will politicize the management process more deeply than would a responsible government agency because special interests with major political clout will be served best, and the citizens who live nearest the boundaries of the study area may be powerless.
There are doubts and fears. Doubts that the soils in the Bitterroot ecosystem (BE) are of a quality that can support tubers as copiously as the Yellowstone ecosystem, where grizzlies have thrived. Doubts that habitat analysis based on satellite imagery, on which reintroduction plans have been based, will be confirmed by "ground-truthing." Doubts that reintroduction into the BE is really necessary in order to "save the grizzly bear." Grizzly bear foods include elk and deer, small mammals, herbaceous vegetation and tubers, and fruits and nuts. Research indicates that over 60% of known herbaceous, and nearly 80% of known fruit and nut food items consumed by grizzly bears still occur in the BEA (Bitterroot Evaluation Area). Opponents of the reintroduction point out that noxious weeds, unpalatable to wildlife, are monopolizing the best soils.
Although seasonally there may be sufficient quantities of spawning coho, and sockeye salmon for grizzly food, chinook salmon, which probably provided the bears' main food source in the 1800s, are practically nonexistent now. In any case, owing to the presence of downstream dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers, it is believed that anadromous fish would not be a readily available resource every year, and would only be supplemental at best. Therefore, the bears to be transplanted to the Bitterroot ecosystem will be chosen from populations with no particular fondness for fish.
There are fears that, although grizzlies are remarkably adaptive, and may multiply in spite of the virtual lack of whitebark pine seeds and spawning salmon in the BE, that same adaptability may impel them to migrate far beyond the official boundaries of the recovery area into human habitats such as those along the Lochsa River. Not only would recreational backcountry use within the wilderness areas be affected, but, worst of all, there could be human casualties both inside and outside the study area.
Chris Servheen, the federal government's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, acknowledges the fundamentally controversial nature of both the concept of reintroduction and the plan for carrying it out. "Nobody," he says, "has no opinion about grizzly bears."