Big Hopes for Bold Beasts

Can grizzlies and wolves be reintroduced safely into old haunts?

  • Michael Lipske
  • Apr 01, 1991
One quiet Sunday morning last August in the small town of Libby, Montana, Wayne Kasworm hurriedly gathered his maps, a two-way radio and a shotgun. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist with a Dutch-boy haircut and a cropped beard, Kasworm was loaded for bear, specifically a young female grizzly plucked two weeks earlier from the wilds of British Columbia and transplanted to the Cabinet Mountains, south and west of Libby.

Since being freed near Lost Girl Creek in the southern part of the mountains, the two-year-old bear had moved steadily north. Overnight, Kasworm knew from the signal on her radio collar, she had wandered to within 4 miles of town. Soon, she could leave the sanctuary of the Cabinets and walk into trouble.

"I'll be the first to admit I'm getting a little nervous about this bear," said Kasworm, checking his supplies. "We've got a lot of people who are sensitive about this." Kasworm hoped to locate the wanderer and, by sounding truck horns and firing shotguns into the air, send her running back into the mountains. And what if the young female should slip through defenses, and the good people of Libby spy her strolling downtown along Mineral Avenue? "I'll be lynched," said Kasworm.

"Transplanting grizzly bears into an area is not like putting bighorns or elk there—given what grizzlies can do," says Thomas France, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Northern Rockies Natural Resources Center in Montana. What grizzlies can do is kill people, although historically they have done so only on rare occasions. More routinely, the big beasts spark fear and loathing in the hearts of human neighbors. Which is why, for a biologist like Kasworm, jitters come with the job of transplanting potentially dangerous, large predators into new areas.

Despite controversy generated by predator transplants, introduction efforts like the one in the Cabinets are gathering speed in many areas of the United States. This summer, biologists plan to trap more young Canadian grizzlies and release them into the mountains around Libby. Not far away, despite longstanding opposition from the western livestock industry, conservationists expect gray wolves to be reintroduced within a few years in Yellowstone National Park—a plan to help balance an ecosystem where elk, bison and deer herds were once trimmed by wolves.

In New Mexico and Texas, predator supporters are seeking federal help with their proposal to return El Lobo, the Mexican wolf, to wildlands. In Florida, scientists working to save the state's perilously endangered panther population are currently investigating whether to establish new enclaves of the big cats throughout their historic range, which stretched from Arkansas to South Carolina.

Meanwhile, in New York, a lynx introduction program has been underway for more than a year in the Adirondacks, where several dozen of the cats have been transplanted from Canada's Yukon. The jury is still out on how well the program will take hold. And in North Carolina, red wolves (a species long ago eradicated from southern woodlands) now live again in the wild at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and are due to be released soon in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Ask conservationists and scientists why such predator introductions are needed, and they respond that the federal Endangered Species Act requires listed wildlife to be restored to safety. "The idea is to help them out, not to leave them on the list forever," says Montana biologist Christopher Servheen, coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery program.

The Endangered Species Act mandates that biologists must work to recover species like the grizzly (listed as threatened in 1975) where habitat is available. Losing grizzlies from the Cabinets—where some wild bears still roam—would not doom the species. The huge bears are abundant in parts of Canada and Alaska. But scientists are certain that without assistance, the animals will not hold on much longer in that Montana stronghold.

"If we allow populations to shrink, we aren't doing enough," says Pat Tucker, a National Wildlife Federation biologist in Montana. "We estimate that the grizzly population will go extinct in the Cabinets in the next few years unless we do something. As far as we know, there are no reproductive females there."

Such thinking, however, and the actual reintroduction of bears, wolves and other animals to former habitats, must have old predator-control agents spinning in their graves. For years, federal policy included erasing most predators from the landscape of the West. In the early part of this century, government hunters with the U.S. Biological Survey (precursor to the Fish and Wildlife Service which now labors to restore certain predators) waged systematic war on animals like the wolf.

Nor has everyone buried the hatchet. The 3,000-member Montana Stockgrowers Association, says Vice President Ed Lord, remains adamantly opposed—if also resigned—to having gray wolves in the northern Rockies. "The biggest support for wolves is from people who have some nostalgia for them," he says, but who are not "being asked to take a direct economic hit" in lost cattle or sheep.

Despite such assertions, the American public seems to have changed its attitudes about predatory animals in recent years. "There clearly has been a dramatic change," says Idaho biologist and mountain lion expert Maurice Hornocker. "Birds of prey are probably the best example. Twenty-five years ago all birds of prey in rural areas were commonly referred to as ‘chickenhawks.’ There were bounties on them. Now they are revered in many parts of the country. Our society is maturing in its attitudes toward all wildlife."

Our society may be maturing, but we hardly speak as one when it comes to predators. Consider the case of Bette Shull. A member of the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce, she worries that grizzly recovery will bring restrictions on mining and timbering and, she says, "jeopardize the stability of the area. It doesn't take much visualization to see that down the road man's the endangered species in Lincoln County, not the bear."

With only grudging acceptance of grizzlies by some locals, biologist Wayne Kasworm must be part nanny and part cop, making sure his wild and none-too-welcome ward keeps out of trouble and does not stir up the community. Local objections to boosting the over-aged and isolated Cabinet grizzly population with young blood from Canada range from threats of physical harm from grizzly attacks to concern about the bear's baggage: Its status as a federally protected species could result in anyone from hikers to huckleberry pickers being banned from bear habitat.

Kasworm has been threatened at a public meeting. His research crew has been told by locals that if a grizzly is seen, it will be shot. "Why aren't you putting grizzlies in New York?” demanded a woman at a community meeting in Thompson Falls, on the southern end of the Cabinets.

At the same meeting, an elderly man disputed government claims that grizzlies need help. "Just a year ago, I heard on TV where a biologist said there were 50,000 grizzlies in Canada and Alaska. Well, they're not coming extinct!"

"We're concerned the Cabinet Mountains population will disappear," responded Kasworm. "And what's wrong with that?" shot back the oldtimer.

"We're trying to maintain the presence of the bear," Christopher Servheen says of the approximately $150,000-a-year federal government effort to boost grizzly numbers in the Cabinets and to study another bear population in a neighboring parcel of the Kootenai National Forest. A project dreamed up by government biologists and tempered through sometimes contentious citizen-scientist meetings, the bear "augmentation," as it is called, is an experiment. It represents the first time researchers have moved wild, nontroublemaking bears solely to boost the breeding in a grizzly population.

According to Kasworm, two indicators will be used to determine the success or failure of the experiment. The first goal, he says, is "to put a bear there and have it stay." The second is "to have the bear stay, breed and produce offspring." Kasworm does not say it, but there is probably a third test of success: that transplanted bears will settle down in the mountain without riling local citizens.

On that August Sunday when Kasworm set out to turn back the wandering female bear (which as it happened had already reversed course back into the mountains and away from town), another bruin stood tall along Libby's Mineral Avenue. Reared up on hind legs, the giant grizzly stared down from a mural on the side of the Dome Movie Theater. Up and down the avenue, store windows bore signs declaring, "This Business Supported by Timber Dollars."

Libby is the county seat of Lincoln County, largest producer of wood products in Montana. Seventy-five percent of the county is federal land, most of that the Kootenai National Forest. But federal holdings also include the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, home to mule deer, elk, mountain goats and other big mammals. And the wilderness is part of the far larger Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, one of six places where grizzly bears still roam in the Lower 48 states. Kasworm says as many as 15 grizzlies may inhabit the Cabinets.

Hibernating through the snowy winter, the grizzlies leave their hillside dens in April. The omnivorous animals feed on seasonal fare—the new green growth of spring, then underground bulbs of glacier lilies and spring beauties. In midsummer, serviceberry and other fruits become available, followed by huckleberries in August. By the start of deer and elk hunting season in fall, the bears begin to key in on another food source: the "gut piles" of organs left behind by hunters.

People rank low on the bear's menu. Only seventeen humans are known to have been killed by grizzlies in the continental United States since the turn of the century. Yet there is something very riveting—a fear transcending logic—about the prospect of being pursued by an immensely powerful 400-pound animal that can run as fast as a horse.

In truth, it is the bears that should worry. The Cabinet-Yaak region is a microscopic remnant of the creatures' formerly vast territory in the West. Scientists believe 100,000 grizzly bears once roamed an area from Ontario to California. Today, fewer than 1,000 remain in six wild pockets of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington.

In the Cabinets, four years of trapping led by Kasworm resulted in the capture of 185 black bears but only three grizzlies. The single female captured is now 34 years old. "She's the oldest known living grizzly,” says Kasworm, and apparently well past cub-bearing age. Simply put, the Cabinet bears are too few and isolated to survive. Hence, the plan to boost the local grizzly population and increase genetic diversity by restocking with subadult females from British Columbia (where a population of 6,500 grizzlies is found).

Although there is still grumbling about shooting any transplanted hear that steps out of line, Servheen believes the effort between citizens and scientists to tailor an acceptable population-recovery plan has paid off in local support. "I think what we've developed is a certain sense of ownership of these bears." he says.

Fear of economic disruption inspired most opposition to grizzly population boosting, and the same fear has fueled another long-running Montana predator battle. As with grizzlies, the controversy still smolders, although with hopeful signs that compromise can be reached.

"We're opposed to it and we're going to stay opposed to it," Montana Stock-growers' Ed Lord says of plans developed by biologists, and under consideration by Congress, to restore endangered gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. Lord says his group has spoken out against wolf reintroduction at forums with conservationists. They have sought to form coalitions with Montana hunters who might oppose wolves as a threat to game populations. "But we also know wolves are already here in Montana and they're not going to go away," says Lord. "We have to make the best of a bad situation."

The "bad situation" for wolf opponents is that after being wiped out by poisoning and traps through government predator-control campaigns (more than 80,000 wolves were killed just in Montana between 1883 and 1918), the predators have reappeared on the west side of Glacier National Park. Furthermore, the U.S. government's Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan calls for establishing ten breeding pairs of wolves in each of three natural areas in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Wolf recovery would occur by natural dispersal in northwestern Montana and central Idaho, and by restocking the animals in Yellowstone Park.

Biologists say there are sound ecological reasons for reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone. "They were originally there," says Steven Fritts, Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Predation by wolves is one of the major ecological processes that has shaped the ungulate herds of North America." Allow wolves 20 years to firmly establish themselves in Yellowstone, and the predators could trim elk and bison populations to more natural levels and "make the park complete," says Fritts. "You would see more stable populations and fewer starving ungulates in winter."

Scientists concede that restocked gray wolves could be expected to make occasional raids on livestock. But "my opinion," says Fritts, who studied wolf-livestock relationships in Minnesota, "is that livestock losses should be low" One reason, he says, is that cattle and sheep that are put out in high pastures around Yellowstone are only on those public grazing lands a few months of the year. In Minnesota, where wolves are classified as a threatened species, some 7,000 farms are scattered throughout wolf country year-round, says Fritts. The 959 animals reported killed by wolves in Minnesota between October 1989 and October 1990 included 2 cows, 34 calves and 103" sheep. Eight hundred of the wolf kills were turkeys. Says L. David Mech, a Fish and Wildlife Service wolf biologist, "There are far fewer livestock around Yellowstone than in Minnesota, and there will be fewer wolves. Minnesota ranchers have relatively few problems with wolves. I believe western ranchers will have even fewer ones."

Meanwhile, one conservation group has created a special fund to compensate western ranchers for losses to wolves. Defenders of Wildlife has already paid out thousands of dollars to ranchers in the Northern Rockies, and has stashed away $90,000 toward future wolf-predation claims. "I have to admire them for being willing to fund it," says Ed Lord. "They're truly putting their money where their mouth is."

To Hank Fischer, Defenders' representative in Montana, paying ranchers is purely practical. "The purpose of the compensation program isn't to make ranchers happy," he says. "I never expect livestock people to come around and embrace wolf recovery. I do expect them to recognize that we have been fair and not kill wolves."

Across the country, fairness and flexibility have smoothed the way for another breed of wolf. As of last fall, nearly three dozen red wolves—a southern species that once ranged into Texas and Oklahoma—had been released at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Five pups have been born on the refuge since 1987. Still more red wolves have been freed on barrier islands off South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi, and this year the species is to be returned to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "This is the first attempt ever to restore a carnivore species that was extinct in the wild," says Fish and Wildlife Service red wolf biologist Mike Phillips.

That the restoration has gone so well is partly due to the designation of the refuge's red wolves as an "experimental population," a special category created in a 1982 amendment to the Endangered Species Act. It has helped win local support for restoration, by easing concern of local people that accidentally killing one of the animals will not necessarily result in a fine or jail term. The "experimental" designation, which has also been proposed for use with gray wolves restocked in Yellowstone, allows wildlife managers to relax rules forbidding the killing of endangered species in some cases.

Biologists have devised an equally useful strategy to help the highly endangered Florida panther. With fewer than 50 panthers alive, scientists want to create additional, self-sustaining populations of the species by introducing the cats to areas possibly outside of Florida. This year, biologists have begun evaluating potential reintroduction sites within a vast stretch of former panther habitat that reaches from Arkansas and Louisiana on around to South Carolina and Tennessee. Surrogate animals (sterilized western cougars) may be released at selected reintroduction sites, allowing scientists to perfect release techniques that will someday be used with the panthers. Biologists hope to boost the endangered species' population to 500 by the year 2010.

Long before the screams of panthers echo across the Southeast, activists in Texas and New Mexico hope to orchestrate the howl of wild Mexican wolves. El Lobo once ranged across much of the American Southwest, but fell victim to the same predator-killing campaigns that nearly eradicated wolves of the Northern Rockies.

About 45 Mexican wolves currently are in breeding centers, and a few wild individuals may exist in Mexico. Activists have suggested returning Mexican wolves to former habitat in Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande River.

"Just as in Yellowstone, the same situation exists in Big Bend," says Brian Apolinario, vice president of the Mexican Wolf Coalition in Texas. "This is the last animal in the cycle. Putting the predator back would complete the link that was there before man altered the habitat."

Meanwhile, in Montana, biologist Kasworm knows that last summer's wandering female grizzly has spent winter in a den somewhere in the Cabinets. She is sleeping now, the manhole-sized entrance to her den hidden by snow. Sometime in April, an unknown cue will wake her, and she will greet her new year. Groggy at first, she will soon make her way down to lower elevations in the forest to stoke her appetite. Whether she can look forward to bearing a long line of cubs or will fall victim to foul play may depend on the public relations skills of wildlife scientists. "I think if they handle things correctly," says one Libby logger of the biologists, "there can be a future for the bear here—and for us, too."

Washington, D.C., writer Michael Lipske visited with Montana grizzly scientists last summer.

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