Grizzlies May Lose Endangered Status
"We're interested in the ability to deal with problem bears by removing them," Magagna said, adding the government "has to be more responsive to the needs of livestock producers."
Magagna and other stock growers have found an ally in Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who has been pushing in Washington to have grizzlies de-listed. Burns said bears are not only a threat to people and livestock but also have impeded logging in some national forests.
"You just have to work around them all the time," Burns said. "We have human beings that want to exist there, we have stockmen who have to put up with losses with that bear, and we can't manage our forests as long as that bear is on the Endangered Species Act list."
Despite their high-profile status, grizzly bears are hard to spot: During a recent trip to Yellowstone it took several hours to spot one massive grizzly lounging on a hill overlooking the Lamar River.
Some bristle at the accommodations that humans make for grizzlies, but Wilcox said these measures are justified. Although the bears are classified as carnivores, 80 percent of their diet consists of vegetation and insects. They eat whitebark pine seeds, for example, and the erratic supply of these seeds because of their natural cycle sometimes forces bears to wander farther afield in search of food. This places them in closer contact with humans, which can lead to them being shot.
Wildlife consultant Troy Merrill of LTB Consulting said periodic declines in the availability of whitebark pine seeds and moths correlates directly with increases in the number of bear deaths.
"What's really important is what's on the landscape that allows bears to thrive and survive," said Chuck Schwartz, who leads the federally funded Interagency Grizzly Study Team.
Under the current plan, sometime early next year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would propose removing grizzly bears from the list. That would prompt a public comment period of about 60 days, in which all sides could weigh in. Then U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials would make a final decision. If the animal does come off the list, the governors of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho plan have indicated, they would consider holding grizzly bear hunts in their states.
Burns helped lay the groundwork for de-listing by obtaining a $3.1 million appropriation to fund a federal study over the past two years to determine exactly how many grizzly bears exist in the West. Researchers set up scented wire traps as bait to collect hair samples from area bears, which they test for DNA content to get a precise count of the population.
"It's hard to identify them when they're eating your cousin," Burns said.
Servheen noted the government plans to spend $3.4 million a year to manage and monitor grizzlies in their habitat once they're no longer labeled as threatened. "A very careful and adaptive management plan will be in place in perpetuity," he said. "De-listing doesn't mean nobody cares about bears anymore."
But Wilcox predicted that any move to reduce federal protections for grizzlies will spur conflict.
"There's nothing quite like the light and heat of a grizzly bear battle," she said. "There's frustration on all sides, on the conservation side, on the rancher side and on the industry side."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company