Walk along Interstate 15 at Camp Creek, 8 miles south of Monida Pass and the boundary with Montana, and you see a grizzly bear would have only 200 yards to cross — including the freeway — to make it from forest to forest.
“We’ve had bears with radio collars within meters of Interstate 15,” said Gregg Losinski, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman. “We know bears can cross the interstate. We just haven’t seen it.”
Interstate 15 cuts through the Centennial Mountains, an important wildlife corridor between two of the largest, wildest landscapes left in the lower 48 states: the 20 million-acre greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the 22 million-acre Salmon-Selway ecosystem of Central Idaho.
Over the past 30 years, the grizzly bear population in Yellowstone has grown from less than 200 to more than 700. Federal authorities are seeking to remove them from the threatened designation under the Endangered Species Act.
But in Central Idaho — largely protected as wilderness without roads and development — grizzly bears were extirpated in the 1950s. Only a few have wandered in from surrounding populations to the north, east and southeast. The discovery of an illegally killed young male grizzly on the edge of the Centennial Mountains earlier this month underscores the hazards bears must pass through if they are to repopulate the largest, highest-quality unoccupied habitat available to them.
THE YELLOWSTONE PROPOSAL
Most of the debate about delisting grizzly bears in greater Yellowstone has centered on the issue of hunting. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting in March, it said it would have an accompanying conservation strategy with a memorandum of understanding signed by the three states to keep the population around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks greater than 609 bears.
This is the habitat and the numbers biologists say are necessary to keep Yellowstone’s distinct population from going extinct.
If the bear population around the parks exceeds 680, the states could establish hunting seasons. Idaho and Wyoming already have reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will allow limited hunting.
A larger monitoring area runs east from I-15 to Cody, Wyo., and from just below Bozeman, Mont., and Interstate 90 southeast into the Wind River Range in Wyoming. In this area, the states would have management authority and could kill bears if they got into trouble.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore says the recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly is a major success story for the Endangered Species Act.
“There is no illusion that population needs to be connected to any larger population to survive,” he said. “That population is sustainable in its own right.”
And management issues such as hunting lie with the states, he said.
Montana is working on its own plan, and conservation groups have pushed for protection of the wildlife corridors that link the Yellowstone population with the larger grizzly population surrounding Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. They also are looking at protecting routes between Yellowstone and the Bitterroot Mountains and between the Continental Divide and the Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Area on the boundary with Idaho.
Tom France, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior director for Western wildlife conservation, supports delisting in Yellowstone. But he wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have some kind of considerations for bears in Idaho.
“They need to have a narrative in their delisting rule that addresses whether grizzly bears in Yellowstone are important to rebuilding the bear population in Central Idaho,” France said. “They need to do this before they delist Yellowstone’s population.”
THERE IS HISTORY HERE
France worked with the timber industry and Idaho sportsmen in the 1990s on a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears as an experimental-nonessential population, similar to how wolves were returned. But the plan was attacked by people on both sides of the debate. Then-Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who labeled grizzlies “flesh-eating carnivores,” said they did not belong in Central Idaho, and the George W. Bush administration killed the idea.
The backlash from wolf reintroduction — politically polarizing even as it has been a biological success story — keeps grizzly reintroduction off the table. The Center for Biological Diversity asked federal wildlife officials to begin reintroduction into Central Idaho in 2014.
“We were told they didn’t have the time or staff to study it,” said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney for the center in Victor.
David Mattson, a retired federal grizzly bear biologist, studied Central Idaho’s habitat quality in the 1990s. He found enough wild space and food sources to support up to 600 bears even without the spawning salmon that were the mainstay of bears’ diets there historically. In fact, Mattson now says the salmon not only fed them but also helped lead to their early demise.
“Salmon brought bears in contact with people,” he said.
In Eastern Idaho’s Island Park and along the Tetons, local governments, Fish and Game, and groups such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition have helped residents “bearproof” their garbage and yards. Bear numbers have risen dramatically over the past 20 years and people have adjusted to having them as neighbors.
“The people of Island Park for the most part love their bears,” said Ken Watts, a retired Idaho National Laboratory employee who lives in the area. “We don’t want to do anything stupid that leads to putting a bear down.”
Southwest Idaho residents were lukewarm at best about having grizzly bears wandering through the places they hiked, camped, fished and hunted during the debates over reintroduction in the 1990s.
George McQuiston was guiding bear hunters into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness near his Challis home this week. The owner of Wild Idaho Outfitters, McQuiston spends most of the year in the Central Idaho backcountry guiding people around moose, mountain lions and other critters he says can be dangerous.
“If a grizzly showed up I’d be nervous, just like I am at night around a mother moose with her calf,” he said. “I think it would weird me out.”
But if bears walk back into Central Idaho, he’s all right with it, “if they’re managed.” He also wants to be assured he can kill one if it attacks his family or horses.
‘A DUTY TO RECOVER’
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wayne Kasworm is the acting grizzly bear coordinator in Missoula. He said Idaho could help bears along by having a mandatory bear identification program for all bear hunters, and by expanding the kind of community “bearproofing” programs that have been so successful in Eastern Idaho.
“That’s not what we’re being asked to do in terms of delisting,” said Ed Schriever, Idaho Fish and Game deputy director.
Both the Center for Biological Diversity’s Santarsiere and the National Wildlife Federation’s France say the two agencies have to get bears into Central Idaho’s wilderness eventually.
“The service has a duty to recover them there they can’t walk away from,” France said. “I hope the Idaho Fish and Game will continue to be a partner there.”
But for now, the grizzly’s return to Central Idaho rests with the fate of individual bears. So far, those in the north have come the closest.
On Sept. 3, 2007, a black bear hunter shot a 5- to 10-year-old male grizzly in the upper Kelly Creek drainage along the North Fork of the Clearwater River, within the Bitterroot recovery area. DNA tests showed it came from the Selkirk Mountains 140 air miles to the north, which meant he crossed U.S. 95, U.S. 200 and Interstate 90 to get to the Kelly Creek area.
Then there was Ethyl. The 19-year-old sow grizzly walked in 2013 from the east side of Hungry Horse Reservoir south of Glacier to the Shoshone County Airport in Smelterville, just north of the Central Idaho recovery area.
Once a bear crosses Interstate 15 in Eastern Idaho, it would again be protected as a threatened species after delisting in Yellowstone.
France is confident it’s only a matter of time.
“There is every reason to believe that if we continue to manage bears as we have, populations in and around the park will continue to grow and expand,” he said.