Grizzly at Obsidian Creek

A grizzly bear follows Obsidian Creek in Yellowstone National Park on April 29, 2012.

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As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moves forward on delisting Yellowstone grizzly bears, an environmental group has petitioned to introduce grizzly bears into the nearby Selway-Bitterroot region.

On Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to develop a new rule to reintroduce grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot, an area recognized in the 1993 recovery plan as one of six recovery areas for grizzly bears.

In 2000, the USFWS completed a grizzly-bear reintroduction plan for the Selway Bitterroot, but the plan was shelved after President George W. Bush took office in 2001.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service should not be working to remove endangered species protections from Yellowstone's isolated grizzlies until it gets the stalled reintroduction effort in the Selway-Bitterroot back on track," said CBD attorney Andrea Santarsiere. "The Selway-Bitterroot contains some of the biggest and best habitat for bears left in the lower 48 states and could be a linchpin in recovering this species in the northern Rockies."

At more than 16 million acres, the Bitterroot-Selway is one of the largest contiguous areas of suitable grizzly bear habitat, but it is the only region without grizzly bears. Scientists estimate it could support 300 to 600 bears.

Santarsiere said the area provides a solution to genetic concerns of inbreeding and isolation in the Greater Yellowstone population.

The other four recovery areas are the Northern Continental Divide, the Cabinet Yaak, the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho and Washington and the North Cascades in Washington.

As part of the Bitterroot Ecosystem subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, representatives from Montana and Idaho land agencies have met biennially on the issue of bears in the area.

At their most recent meeting in October, members focused mainly on ways to enable natural reintroduction of grizzly bears, such as encouraging the westward migration of Yellowstone grizzly bears.

They’ve been looking into how laws, rules and agency workload would change if bears moved in as an experimental population or one protected by the Endangered Species Act.

USFWS grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen said no bear sightings had been verified in the Bitterroot in two years. But the agencies have also been working on educating the public on eliminating bear attractants, which also helps black bears.

Servheen authored the first Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan in 1996. At the time, he wrote that recovery through natural recolonization was not likely because of “the lack of movement or dispersal by grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains.”

But as the Yellowstone grizzly bear population has grown over subsequent years, more individuals have wandered farther afield.

Yellowstone grizzly bears are known to have wandered as far as the Centennial Valley. If they crossed U.S. Interstate 15, they wouldn’t have to travel much farther to reach the Bitterroot Range.

That’s part of the reason some oppose delisting the Yellowstone population: If Montanans are allowed to hunt grizzly bears, fewer would be successful in trekking vast distances to colonize new territory or interbreed.

Erin Edge, Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains associate, said over the past few years, bears have started migrating south from the Flathead area into the forested valleys around Missoula, such as the Ninemile Valley.

Recently, the USFWS documented the wanderings of Ethyl, an unusual female grizzly bear from the Flathead area who traveled thousands of miles through Idaho and Montana over the course of two years.

Even so, Santarsiere said human-aided reintroduction was required for the grizzly bears to have any shot at real recovery.

Rather than waiting for bears to trickle into the area over many years, human-induced reintroduction would speed colonization of the Bitterroot. But it might be more successful at a later time.

Edge said the Bitterroot area already causes food and habitat problems for black bears, so grizzly bears trying to colonize the area would encounter difficulties also.

“We’ve slowly started to see more grizzly bear use of the habitat. So we’re trying to work with the agencies to identify hotspots for conflicts and try and clean those up,” Edge said. “There’s an awful lot of conflict prevention work to be done.”

Marc Cooke of Wolves of the Rockies lives in Victor and said some in the Bitterroot Valley would always oppose any federal action. So they would react to the reintroduction of grizzly bears with the same hostility they showed for the wolf reintroduction, Cooke said.

For example, a former state legislator in the area has for several years displayed a sign saying, “No reintroduction of grizzly bears here.”

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at llundquist@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638.

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