Public opposes plan to stall grizzly reintroduction

The Associated Press
Wednesday October 24, 2001

MISSOULA, Mont. — Public comments overwhelming opposed a Bush administration plan to scrap grizzly bear reintroductions along the Montana-Idaho border, but most were form letters drafted by environmental groups, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report shows. 

A spokesman for Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who put the reintroduction plan on hold, said public opinion will not be the determining factor in the plan’s future. 

“Public opinion will be a portion of the decision-making process,” Mark Pfeifle said Tuesday. “But it won’t be the only thing.” 

The federal wildlife agency received more than 28,000 written comments during a 60-day public comment period on Norton’s plan to halt grizzly reintroductions in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Montana and Idaho. 

An analysis provided by the wildlife agency showed 98 percent said they oppose Norton’s plan. However, the analysis also showed that about 88 percent of all the comments came in form letters, most from environmental groups opposed to Norton’s plan. 

Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for Norton, said the department will review the comments, but noted that the reintroduction plan was “never a public opinion contest.” 

The department’s final decision will be based on “the policy, the science, and the needs and desires of local elected officials and citizens who would be most affected,” he said. 

In June, Norton proposed setting aside a Clinton-era plan to reintroduce grizzlies into the remote mountains of western Montana and central Idaho. 

The plan had drawn complaints from local officials and ranchers concerned about the bears’ reputation for killing and eating livestock and their infrequent but occasionally violent encounters with people. Environmentalists have seen the relocation issue as a test of Norton’s commitment to protecting rare or endangered species. 

It was seen by others as a sign of her determination to cooperate with governors such as Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, a Republican who sued to stop the plan two days before President Bush took office, and who has portrayed the bears as “massive, flesh-eating carnivores.” 

Kempthorne was among those who commented on the plan, criticizing federal officials for not adequately evaluating the potential for human conflicts with the bears. 

In both states, opposition to Norton’s plan among those who submitted comments was strong.  

In Idaho, 98 percent opposed halting the reintroduction. In Montana, 93 percent of those who responded said they opposed Norton’s move. 

“I certainly think the public has spoken,” said Tom France, a Missoula-based attorney for the National Wildlife Federation and one of the authors of the original reintroduction plan. “It is clear that Secretary Norton is running hard against what most people think is the right thing to do.” 

Pfeifle said administration officials are “still looking through the comments for new scientific or biological information.” 

“The analysis has not been entirely finished,” he said. “We are looking at both the quantity and the quality of public input.”