The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee says its new recovery plan would actually meet environmentalist goals of doubling the grizzly bear population and linking isolated bear populations.

The committee, which includes federal and state officials, earlier this month unveiled a new management plan to protect grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.Environmental groups told the panel at its mid-December meeting that the plan has no teeth, allows bear numbers to dip below acceptable levels and could take them off the endangered species list.

There are an estimated 800 grizzlies in ecosystems centered around Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Glacier National Parks and the Cabinet Mountains in Montana, Idaho's Selkirk Mountains and Washington's Cascade Mountains.

Environmentalists said the animals won't survive unless these areas are linked and populations double. Four groups have asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to withdraw the government plan and start over. One group said it would challenge the plan in court next month.

Stung by the criticism, committee members said they will draft a letter to send to Babbitt in coming weeks that refutes the charges.

"I don't think we can sit on the complaints and not respond," said Dave Jolly, a Montana-based regional forester and committee member. "We need to tell the secretary how much biology and work went into this."

Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee said the Interior Department likely would not withdraw the plan. He said envi-ro-nmen-talists were engaging in "Chicken Little rhetoric."

"The grizzly bear is an outstanding success story," Barbee said. "We've come a long way. We've demonstrated that we can recover the bear."

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Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who wrote the recovery plan, said the document proposes reintroducing grizzlies into Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains, which would effectively double overall populations. He added that linking the systems was being explored.

"All that is in the plan," he said.

Louisa Willcox, program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, countered that none of it is required and the bears could be taken off the endangered species list before any of it is achieved.

"They get to say they've covered all these issues without actually doing anything," she said. "How does that help bears on the ground?"

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