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Grizzly bear
Idaho Statesman, December 28, 2014

Selway-Bitterroot area perfect habitat for grizzlies
By Andrea Santarsiere

Nowhere in the West is there likely any more remote and suitable habitat for grizzly bears than the millions of acres centered around the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas.

So it's hardly surprising that over the past 30 years, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists have repeatedly pointed out how essential this area is for sustainable grizzly bear recovery. Yet the stunning expanse of terrain that remains some of the most difficult to access wilderness remaining in the Lower 48 states is still not home to a resident grizzly bear population.

Way back in 1982 the agency's scientists recognized the Selway-Bitterroot, which researchers believe can support between 300 and 600 grizzlies, as key among six potential grizzly bear recovery areas in connecting scattered bear populations, particularly the totally isolated population in Yellowstone National Park.

But several decades later, the Selway-Bitterroot stands alone as the only established recovery area without any documented resident grizzly bears. That's why I submitted a legal petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service last week calling for the agency to update a grizzly reintroduction rule finalized in 2000, but never implemented, to reintroduce grizzlies to this important area.

The science detailing the need to return grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot is clear: As isolated populations are threatened not only by genetic depression and inbreeding, but by the ever-mounting pressures of climate change and human population growth, grizzlies in the Lower 48 face an uncertain future. A growing body of research suggests the best way to ensure their long-term survival is to return them to greater portions of their historic range.

There is no question some will insist the region has too many people now to support more grizzlies. But much of the core of this area is completely uninhabited and extremely difficult to access. And perhaps more importantly, in recent decades we've learned much about how to live side-by-side with these important top predators representative of healthy, sustainable ecosystems.

More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park every year, yet incidents of grizzly bear attacks are extremely low. According to the National Park Service, the chances of being injured by a bear in Yellowstone are approximately 1 in 2.1 million - substantially lower than of being injured in a car accident in the park.

There's no doubt that living with grizzlies requires people, particularly backcountry visitors, to take precautions, such as hiking in groups, making noise and carrying bear spray, which have been proved to be extremely effective in deterring a startled bear.

As demonstrated in Yellowstone and many other areas, it can be done. In Alaska, for example, people live side-by-side with grizzly bears with very few problems.

In the U.S., grizzlies occupy only 4 percent of their historic range in the Lower 48 states, primarily in and around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Surviving in five isolated locations, the long-term survival of the bear is at risk without an effort to reconnect these populations.

We have space for people and grizzlies. It's time to embrace our legal and moral duty to help make sure these remarkable bears are around for centuries to come by bringing them home to the great wild stretches of the Selway-Bitterroot.

Andrea Santarsiere is a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity's Victor, Idaho office, where her work focuses on protecting carnivores.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton