Fuzzy Future for American Grizzlies. Economic interests and environmentalists are at loggerheads over protection of disappearing habitat. WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

GRIZZLY bears in the Lower 48 states are caught in the classic environment-versus-economy battle that is raging worldwide. The bear's battle to survive is being waged in the Northwest, predominantly in Montana, where the largest population of grizzlies still lives. ``The worst enemies of natural resources in this country are the holding companies. They just don't care about anything but fast profits,'' says Charles Jonkel, head of the Grizzly Bear Project and faculty affiliate in environmental studies at the University of Montana. ``There are six grizzly populations left in the contiguous United States, but the only one that's stable is the Northern Continental Divide population in Montana.''

Population estimates for the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies range from 549 to 813 bears, but Dr. Jonkel believes that all six groups will suffer decreases as their habitats continue to deteriorate.

The grizzly now has less than 1 percent of its original habitat south of Canada. Most of that space lies within Montana, where timber, mining, oil and gas exploration, agriculture, tourism, and recreation threaten to erode the bear's shrinking habitat.

``Actually national forest properties in the region increased by over 40,000 acres last year,'' says John Mumma, the US Forest Service regional forester for Region I, which covers Montana, northern Idaho, and parts of North and South Dakota. ``Timber harvests and grizzly bear populations are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. The Forest Service doesn't manage its land for the greatest dollar return, but for the nation's long-term interest. We preserve natural resources for future generations. That's the difference between government and private concerns,'' Mr. Mumma says.

Yet dispute rages among environmentalists, corporate concerns, and government bodies over what lands belong to the grizzlies. Champion International and Plum Creek Timber Company Inc., currently a subsidiary of Burlington Resources undergoing reorganization to become an independently held company, own 1.7 million acres of private forest land in Montana and buy timber cut from national forest land. Both companies have been accused of overcutting their private lands and putting pressure on government to cut more trees in national forest lands.

``People like to say that grizzlies hold up logging,'' comments Mike Aderhold, who is the wildlife biologist and public information officer in the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, ``but last year 243 million board feet of timber was logged from the Kootenai National Forest in the northwest corner of Montana, despite droughts and fires. That was a record for that forest, and 45 percent to 55 percent was cut in grizzly habitat.''

During the first month of the Bush administration, the US Forest Service ordered 30 percent more cutting in Montana and Idaho. Timber officials argue that the Forest Service wants to bring cutting up to existing forest plans; bear advocates, however, see the cutting as another blow to the grizzly's shrinking territory.

``But,'' says Chuck Keegan, director of forest industry research at the University of Montana in Missoula, ``public lands are being dramatically undercut. The timber industry provides jobs, and you can't attack people's livelihoods.''

Jonkel counters by saying that he ``hates to see the bear pitted against employment, because the bear never wins.''

Oil and gas drilling encroaches on the bear's territory, too. ``A half dozen multinational companies plan to drill here,'' says Lance Olsen, president of the Great Bear Foundation, an organization based in Missoula to promote conservation for wild bears and their habitats worldwide.

``Chevron and American Petrofina [French-owned] plan to drill immediately south of Glacier Park. Other companies hold leases, and the Bush administration favors tax incentives to encourage more drilling in the US,'' Mr. Olsen says. ``It's a volatile situation because, if the price of crude oil rises, the grizzly will suffer again. The prospects for maintaining grizzly habitat in Montana are poor if the current development trends continue.''

But the Forest Service says it is managing the situation well. ``Before we permit any oil and gas activities,'' Mumma says, ``we do an environmental-impact statement, and we have regulations that require a consultation with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service about endangered species. We try to minimize the impact on animals. If we can't do that and it's primary habitat, we don't allow drilling.''

Environmentalists complain, however, that logging and drilling in pristine areas open roads that ultimately allow access to anyone once the activity has stopped.

The Yellowstone Coalition's recent report criticizes the forest plan for Gallatin National Forest, bordering Yellowstone National Park, for allowing roads on 46 percent of identified grizzly habitat in the area. ``There are 30,000 miles of public forest roads in the western quarter of Montana,'' Mr. Aderhold says. ``More logging and mining assume additional roads, which means a decrease in security for the grizzly and other big-game animals.''

Tourism and recreation are becoming increasingly bigger problems for the bear. Glacier National Park registered 1.8 million visitors in 1988, a 9 percent increase over 1987.

Yellowstone's fires last summer have created large open areas that will be there for at least a decade and will increase the risk of exposure for the bears.

Small ski operations like the Big Mountain in Whitefish plan major expansions. Mike Collins, president and chief executive officer of Big Mountain, says the company will replace its primary chairlift this year. That will quadruple the number of people it can carry from 600 an hour to 2,400. The ski resort is surrounded by national forest used by grizzlies.

``The US Forest Service asked for our recommendation concerning the Summit House Restaurant on Big Mountain,'' says Aderhold. ``We aren't happy about their plans to expand the cooking facilities, because the odors will attract bears. Originally, when they approached us in the early '80s to build the facility, the owners were willing to make all kinds of concessions to the bears, including only being open when the bears were in hibernation. Now they want a full, year-round operation with major changes. That's not good for the bear and encourages bear/human encounters.''

``I don't see bears as a problem,'' says Collins. But two years ago a grizzly foraged on the Big Mountain for two weeks. ``We watched her closely and knew where she was all the time,'' he says.

As development continues in the area, growing numbers of people are questioning the long-term wisdom of such action. One such group, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, was formed last November and has rapidly enlisted 10,000 members.

``The alliance represents sections of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alberta,'' says Mike Bader, at the alliance headquarters in Missoula. ``We've formed an umbrella group to provide a voice for smaller organizations that felt they weren't being heard, because they didn't have power and money.'' Mr. Bader says the group will campaign heavily to have wilderness resources become much more of a national and international issue.

Ronald Reagan's presidential veto of the Montana wilderness bill at the end of his term is sure to spark fresh debates on what should be done with the 6.5 million acres of unclassified lands still remaining in the state. Jonkel, the bear biologist from the University of Montana, says, ``Good bear habitat is good people habitat, too. It makes sense to take care of it for all of us.''

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