Hunted to extinction by trappers and sheep herders until the 1930s, the grizzly bear has not been seen in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana for more than half a century.
But in an uncommon alliance, loggers and environmentalists are pushing a controversial effort to return one of the West's most fearsome and storied predators to the northern Rockies.
The draft plan, just released by federal wildlife officials, also signals a dramatic shift in how endangered-species populations are recovered: It would turn over to a panel of citizens the management of grizzly bears reintroduced into remote federal lands.
The proposal represents a movement away from what many in the West believe is heavy-handed government regulation dictated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
"This kind of approach to endangered-species management is simply unprecedented, and it has potential applications far beyond grizzly bears," says Tom France, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the parties that brokered the plan.
This week the plan received a tentative nod from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which would voluntarily relinquish some of its authority codified in the Endangered Species Act.
If it is approved, over the next five years 30 Canadian grizzlies would be relocated into the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. The region could potentially increase total grizzly numbers in the Lower 48 by one-third and provide a vital habitat bridge between existing bear populations in Yellowstone National Park to the south and Glacier National Park to the north.
But the plan is running into fierce opposition in Idaho from Gov. Phil Batt, US Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R), the state Fish and Game Department, and some environmental groups. Polls taken in timber country show widespread opposition to bear reintroduction, based largely on concerns over safety and perceived threats to the job security of logging workers.
Still, timber industry leaders like Jim Riley, executive vice president of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, says the Fish and Wildlife Service made it clear in the early 1990s that bear reintroduction would proceed regardless of local opposition.
That's why three years ago, his organization and others in the industry sought a truce with environmentalists on the premise that local participation in bear management could prevent the kind of costly legal battles and government intervention that has occurred over protecting forests for spotted owls.
"We are not afraid of living with grizzlies," Mr. Riley says. "What we fear most is having the federal government come in here and shut down traditional forms of resource extraction like logging to accommodate bears."
A key provision of the pact says that after a core number of bears has been successfully established, management decisions such as setting timber quotas would be influenced by a select 14-member citizens committee, chosen by the governors of Montana and Idaho.
Although the novel approach appears to have the blessing of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, timber officials and some environmental groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife, have been accused by their allies of selling out to the enemy.
"When you make a deal with the devil, the devil is going to win in the long run," said John Burns of the Idaho Fish and Game Department at a recent public meeting in Salmon, Idaho.
The Missoula, Mont.-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies argues the plan is not based on sound science and gives loggers too much leverage over the fate of bears and their habitat.
A primary concern is what happens when grizzlies inevitably wander out of the wilderness onto ranchers' property and sections of national forest where logging is proposed. Under the plan, the Bitterroot bear population - like recently transplanted wolves in Yellowstone and central Idaho - would be classified as "non-essential, experimental." The status allows for greater management flexibility, including relocation and even killing of bears that represent an ongoing threat to people or livestock.
Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife says the effort is as much a test of human values as a new chapter in bear biology and endangered- species politics.
"The real question is, 'Can we trust citizens to restore bears?' " says Mr. Fischer. "If it succeeds it becomes an important new way of doing business, and if it fails then it quiets those who claim communities can do a better job of restoring species than the federal government [can]."