BOISE, Idaho (AP) â€” Barrie Gilbert knows all too well what an angry grizzly can do.
A wildlife biologist at Utah State University, Gilbert was doing research in Yellowstone National Park in 1997 when he surprised a male bear that tore off his nose and scalp and clawed out his left eye. His face had to be surgically reconstructed.
Despite the mauling, Gilbert believes an educated public can live alongside the great bear that for many symbolizes the West and America's frontier past. Protecting the grizzly, he argues, would say something extraordinary about Americans.
The theory will be put to the test soon enough: The federal government is preparing to reintroduce grizzlies in Idaho, the first such effort involving bears in U.S. history.
Spurred by the success of its Idaho wolf reintroduction five years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce plans this summer to release grizzlies as soon as 2002.
The agency contends grizzlies are the missing part of the wild character in the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states, thousands of square miles across Idaho and into Montana.
Critics argue that wolves are far different from grizzlies, that few in Idaho are prepared for such big, powerful animals and that releasing the fearsome predators is a recipe for disaster.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne put it this way during a recent meeting with federal officials: ``This is perhaps the first federal land management action in history likely to result in injury or death of members of the public.''
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were confident that their flintlocks were a match for any beast they might find in the unknown West. Then they ran into the grizzly.
Despite leveling a barrage that eventually brought one bear down, the men who charted a path to the Pacific two centuries ago were soon chased into the Missouri River.
``The Indians of this country seldom kill the bear,'' Clark later wrote. ``They are very much afraid of them, and killing one is as great a feat as two of their enemy.''
Grizzlies are strong and exceptionally fast, quicker than even the fastest sprinter, and have little to fear except humans. But their habitat and numbers dwindled as people moved into the West, and bears are designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
While there are an estimated 50,000 grizzlies in Alaska and Canada, there are only about 1,200 in the lower 48 states, scattered across northern Montana, the Yellowstone ecosystem, the Canadian-Idaho border and the northern Cascades.
However, grizzly populations over the last decade have steadily increased in the Yellowstone area and northern Montana, said Bob Ruesink, the Idaho supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency plan calls for transplanting 25 Canadian or American bears over five years to nearly 6,000 square miles of rugged mountains and canyons in the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas of Idaho and Montana. Each bear would be monitored by a radio collar.
Bears would later be allowed to range over another 20,000 square miles that encompasses communities as far west as Washington and east into Montana. While there are essentially no people living in the direct reintroduction zone â€” all of it designated wilderness â€” the wider area includes approximately 100,000 people.
``We wouldn't use any bears that have any conflict history with people or livestock,'' said Chris Servheen, the bear recovery coordinator in Missoula, Mont. Any grizzly could be trapped and destroyed if it frequents areas of high human use, acts aggressively toward humans or kills livestock.
Hiker Tom Lopez of Boise describes himself as an environmentalist. But after watching grizzlies in Alaska's Brooks Range and running into one near Yellowstone, he has doubts about creating another population.
``On one hand, I'm in favor of preserving as much as you can, but the environment is too cut up to reintroduce them,'' Lopez said. ``There's a lot of conflicts, and I'm not sure there's enough empty space.''
Tom Allegrezza, too, once stumbled upon a grizzly. He doesn't want to do it again.
The Boise chiropractor and avid outdoorsman who owns the Sulphur Creek Ranch in the proposed grizzly recovery zone, came close to a bear while camping in Alaska several years ago.
``It scared the heck out of me,'' Allegrezza said. ``You have to go through that experience. It makes the hair stand up on your neck. I didn't sleep at all for the rest of the week.
``I can't think of anyone who would want to go hunting in the wilderness if there was a bear around.''
The Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a 15-member Citizen Management Committee to oversee the recovery project. The concept drew initial praise even from bear opponents until it became clear that federal officials would hold veto power over any management tactics.
Laird Noh, a sheep rancher and Idaho state senator, has been broadminded about wolf reintroduction even while many fellow ranchers have decried the predators' presence.
Grizzlies, he said, are another issue.
``In terms of sheer numbers, the concerns I hear are people who like to hike and camp with children in that country,'' Noh said. ``That will be the end of that. People will be frightened out.''
There are some 2,000 campsites within the wilderness areas that are used by hunters, outfitters, fisherman and rafters floating the Salmon River. Several Boy Scout camps lie at the southern end of the grizzly recovery zone.
Idaho leaders and many constituents are adamant about preventing the federal government from adding bears to their back yard â€” just as it did with wolves.
``It represents a clear confrontation between man and species, a confrontation in which Idahoans may pay the ultimate sacrifice,'' Kempthorne said.
The governor has vowed to sue to halt the project, and Idaho's congressional delegation has threatened to impede funding for the Interior Department. They have the support of their counterparts in neighboring states, although outgoing Montana Gov. Marc Racicot recently endorsed the reintroduction plan.
Supporters of the plan say grizzlies don't breed until they are 4 years old and produce only two cubs every third year. It could take as long as a century for the Bitterroot bear population to hit the 280 target.
Supporters also argue that grizzlies don't pose a serious threat to humans. Yellowstone National Park reported only five fatal bear attacks in 150 years through 1994.
Gilbert, who survived the bear mauling, admits he violated one of the two cardinal rules â€” never sneak up on a grizzly and keep a clean camp so bears aren't attracted by food.
``Bears do get into trouble because we operate sloppily in the forests,'' Gilbert said.
That's probably what happened to Lewis and Clark almost 200 years ago. By going after the bears for meat and grease, the explorers were asking for trouble, Gilbert said.
``The bears weren't intentionally attacking them,'' he said. ``The grizzlies were trying to get away.''
On the Net:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.r6.fws.gov/endspp/grizzly
Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org/wilderness/grizzly
Concerned About Grizzlies: http://www.bitterroot.com/grizzly