The uphill battle to conserve America’s grizzlies

Grizzly bears have a reputation for being fierce, man-killing creatures. But scientists say we have more reason to be fearful for them than of them.  A century ago, some 50,000 grizzly bears roamed the lower 48 states.

Now there are an estimated 1,200 grizzly bears in the U.S., and grizzlies are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Although grizzlies are now doing better in some areas such as around Yellowstone National Park, before they can be delisted they have to be doing better over a wider range.

A plan has been developed to restore grizzly bears to two wilderness areas — 3 1/2 million acres of good bear habitat — in Idaho and western Montana. The plan calls for five bears to be introduced to this area every year for five years. Similar re-introductions have worked in places like northern Italy and Austria. In 2000, the U.S. government approved the plan. But it was challenged by state government and reintroduction efforts are now stalled.

Wildlife biologist Sterling Miller says if an area is protected enough to sustain grizzlies, other species thrive, too — lynx, bull trout, wolverine, mountain caribou. Miller and colleagues are preparing these wilderness areas in Idaho and Montana for a grizzly bear homecoming. For example, they’re replacing conventional dumpsters with bear-proof versions.

That way, he says, whether the bears get there on their own or with the help of people, the land will be ready for them.

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