Grizzly Bears Make Slow Recovery

Friday, July 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tim Bertram has hiked for years through the hemlocks and pines of the Colville National Forest, always watching for a grizzly bear.

He has never seen one.

Bertram oversees a program that limits access to roads, restricts the timing of logging operations and maintains healthy shrub stands to get bears to wander into the national forest in Washington state.

``Knowing that they can be here is very important to me,'' said Bertram, a supervisory wildlife biologist with the Forest Service. ``I have a 1-year-old daughter — I want her to have that opportunity to see a bear when she gets older.''

Bertram's experience illustrates what has happened in the 25 years since the grizzly was listed as a threatened species in the lower 48 states: habitats have been re-established but recovery is a slow process.

While no one kept good numbers, biologists say there were as few as 600 bears in the lower 48 states in 1975. Today there are 1,200, though they can be found in just four states — Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington.

Still, that's very different from the estimated 50,000 grizzlies that roamed west of the Mississippi, from Canada to Mexico, 200 years ago.

Grizzlies generally are brown and can stand up to 7 feet tall and weigh as much as 900 pounds. They have long front claws that are curved for digging, a shoulder hump and small round ears. They can be aggressive; mothers are fiercely protective of their cubs.

The bears are one of the slowest reproducing animals on the continent, and biologists don't foresee their numbers reaching 2,000 for decades to come.

``If you were God creating a mammal that would be tough to recover, the grizzly bear is it,'' said Louisa Willcox, project coordinator of the Sierra Club's grizzly bear ecosystem project.

Grizzlies now face a threat biologists didn't envision 25 years ago. ``Modem cowboys'' who live in the country and work from their home computers have accelerated growth and sprawl in places such as Bozeman, Mont.; Cody, Wyo.; and Driggs, Idaho, where grizzlies are found.

``Bears show up where bears have been for thousands of years,'' said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. ``They (homeowners) get excited and say, `A bear is on my property, what am I supposed to do?' Our challenge is to educate these people. It is possible to live with bears and minimize conflict with bears if you do some things.''

Servheen said landowners need the same lessons that campers at Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks have learned: Garbage must be properly stored, food should not be left out and the presence of a bear does not mean the bear has to be killed.

Wildlife officials have been distributing grizzly education pamphlets to real estate agents in fast-growing areas, hoping to reach prospective homeowners and prevent human-bear conflicts.

Grizzly advocates also are trying to push out the boundaries of the grizzly recovery zones and have been pushing for the reintroduction of grizzlies into the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho along the Montana border.

Ranchers and property owners who have seen wolves reintroduced in Idaho in recent years worry about bringing bears to the area.

``You've got an animal that a lot of people tell us that they don't want back,'' said Lindsay Nothern, spokesman for Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho. ``Wolves don't eat people; grizzlies eat people.''

Crapo and other Idaho lawmakers have inserted language into an Interior Department spending bill that would prohibit the government from reintroducing the grizzlies in Idaho until there is a scientific review.


On the Net:

Federal agencies grizzly site:

Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project: