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Grizzlies returning to range despite fight

Reintroduction may bring injury, death, Idaho leader says

BOISE — The federal Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement that it plans to release at least 25 grizzly bears into the mountains along the Idaho-Montana border came as no surprise. Neither did the governor's renewed vow to fight the project in court.

"I oppose bringing these massive, flesh-eating carnivores into Idaho," Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said Thursday. "This is perhaps the first federal land management action in history likely to result in injury or death of members of the public. Whenever there's an encounter between a human and a grizzly, the human does not fare well."

Hiker Tom Lopez of Boise should know.

Lopez, who considers himself an environmentalist, said he has doubts about reintroducing grizzlies after watching bears in Alaska's Brooks Range and surviving a charge by one near Yellowstone National Park.

"Clearly there's going to be conflicts," he said. "When there's grizzly bears and people around, people are going to have to give."

Ralph Morgenweck, the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional director, announced plans Thursday to locate the big bears, many of them from Canada, into the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas over five years.

The combined 4 million acres makes up the largest block of wilderness in the Rocky Mountains south of Canada. Contact with humans in the region is unlikely, federal officials say.

The first bears would not be moved until at least the summer of 2002.

Under a special rule — which also guides the current reintroduction of wolves in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park — Fish and Wildlife will be able to relocate or destroy bears if they act aggressively toward livestock or humans.

The plan also puts the bears under the oversight of a 15-member citizen committee, including a member chosen by the Nez Perce tribe.

The goal for the Bitterroots is 280 bears, which could take 50 to 100 years to accomplish. There are already about 1,100 bears in five populations scattered through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. Grizzlies were eradicated in the Bitterroots by the 1940s.

Kempthorne said the Idaho Legislature, congressional delegation and state game officials strongly oppose the plan. He earlier warned that Idaho would not be shy about tapping a $1 million fund set aside to defend the state's constitutional interests.

"No one in Idaho wants these bears back. This is a plan that is being shoved down our throats," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

But environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, praised the government's citizen advisory group approach. It said the plan "offers the best chance to recover and conserve grizzly bears while also protecting the culture and livelihood of people and communities" in the region.

Other environmentalists warn that the plan would cost the bears full protection of the Endangered Species Act, under which they are listed as threatened. They prefer the natural proliferation of bears through the mountain range.

In a similar project, wolves in Idaho have increased from the 35 Canadian animals released in 1995 and 1996 to about 200 today. But while wolves have one of the highest reproductive rates among North American mammals, grizzlies have nearly the lowest.

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