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Reconnecting Grizzly Habitat

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Geoff O'Gara: Around Yellowstone it's been wolves, wolves, wolves in recent years. So much so we've almost forgotten another predator. Bigger, stronger, wilder, the grizzly bear. So we went on a Yellowstone bear hunt, armed with cameras, to see what we could see. It turns out that while the wolf was getting the headlines the Yellowstone grizzly has been on the move.

Chris Servheen photoChris Servheen (Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for US Fish & Wildlife Service): When we started this for us it was twenty two years ago and there were perhaps two hundred and fifty to three hundred bears in here. Now we have probably five to six hundred bears in this ecosystem. The distribution of bears is amazing; we have bears in places they haven't been in seventy or eighty years.

Geoff O'Gara: And when bears are doing well, their population growing, they do what a lot of us do, they travel. The problem for the Yellowstone bear is, with all the fences, subdivisions and roads encircling the park they have got nowhere to go. There was a time though when the grizzly bears in this country numbered in the thousands, and they ranged from Mexico to the Pacific to the Great Plains. Now the grizzly, like bison and wolves and other wildlife, is on a wilderness island in Yellowstone.

Louisa Willcox photoLouisa Willcox (Grizzly Specialist, Natural Resources Defense Council): Most experts believe that uncontrolled rural sprawl could be the death knell of grizzly recovery in the future by virtue of ringing these isolated ecosystems.

Chuck Schwartz photoChuck Schwartz (Head, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team): Fragmentation is an issue in this ecosystem. As populations become isolated you tend to get in-breeding or populations that are threatened and are very small. You tend to lose genetic diversity.

Geoff O'Gara: What biologists and wildlife advocates want is linkages. Reconnecting Yellowstone grizzlies to good habitat south in Wyoming and to bear populations in the north. In 1975 the grizzly in the lower forty eight was protected as an threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Recovery zones were mapped out in northern Montana, central Idaho, and Yellowstone. The linkage idea is to connect these areas with corridors of enough habitat that bears can travel back and forth between Yellowstone and Canada, where bears are plentiful. But right now that journey requires getting past highways, railroad tracks, and a lot of new ranchettes.

Louisa Willcox: There is now enough evidence that we can now connect these populations into stronger populations into Canada.

Lance Craighead photoLance Craighead (Executive Director, Craighead Environmental Research Institute): What we are talking about here is sort of an interstate highway system for animals. Trying to maintain the movement routes that they have used for thousands of years. And most of those routes are still intact.

Geoff O'Gara: But it isn't going to be easy. Take for example Wyoming's Togwotee pass. A beautiful mountain highway connecting Jackson Hole to Dubois south of Yellowstone. Drivers want a wider, straighter, faster highway. But wildlife has to cross the road to get to good habitat in the Wind River mountains. And there are no stoplights for grizzlies.

Bob Bonds photoBob Bonds (Environmental Coordinator, Wyoming Department of Transportation): The roadway surfacing is in incredibly poor condition as well as numerous curves. In trying to make a roadway safer for the traveling public we are making the roadway wider, and actually clearing . . . a wider swath because we're also making the side float shallower.

Chuck Schwartz: As highways are made wider and straighter they become barriers to wildlife movement.

Bob Bonds: We realize through numerous public comments that wildlife is a major concern and a major resource, both for tourism and for just the over all economy of Wyoming. And for that reason WYDOT will try to accommodate wildlife.

Geoff O'Gara: And it's not just a debate between engineers and biologists. There are local people who aren't sure they want to see life made easier for the bears.

Philip Cross photoPhilip Cross (Fremont County rancher): The road going over there needs to be cleaned up, straightened up, and made a safer public access is what it needs to be done. And I don't believe that the bear should be any part of that. As far as creating corridors that is just a federal . . . federal zoning program. And that is just exactly what that is: it's a government taking.

Geoff O'Gara: And if the Yellowstone grizzly bear is to move north it will face not just wilderness and possible ranchers but political opposition too.

Governor Kempthorne photoGovernor Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho): Can you believe that Clinton administration proposal to re-introduce flesh eating grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness? Folks, this could be the first land management action in history to knowingly result in sure death and injury of citizens.

Geoff O'Gara: Linkage advocates say bear opponents are a minority, and in any case the need to preserve bear habitat is too urgent to wait.

Chuck Schwartz: We have very little time to establish these and get them on the landscape. The rate of development in the West has accelerated to the point that if we do not identify linkage zones and get these habitats secured in the near future we are likely to lose them forever.

Geoff O'Gara: So we have, you might say, two very different corridors. For us there are freeways like these, bigger, straighter, and faster. For the bear, an equally avid traveler, the journey follows a different path. When those two trails cross who is going to yield?

Louisa Willcox: Will we commit our resources and ourselves to doing what we know we need to do to ensure a stable, healthy, long-term future for grizzly bears?

Philip Cross: I can live with a bear if he stays clear and the hell and gone away from me.

Chris Servheen: The greatest, most important habitat for grizzly bears is in the human heart.

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