Environmental group says Selkirk grizzlies facing extinction

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2001

NEWPORT, Wash. (AP) -- There are so few grizzly bears roaming the Selkirk Mountains that biologists have given many of them individual names.

They also have a collective moniker: ''The walking dead.''

''It's an extinction story in progress,'' said Louisa Willcox of Bozeman, Mont., the Sierra Club's coordinator on grizzly bears.

Grizzlies are listed as threatened and live in only four areas in the lower 48 States, in portions of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington.

In two of those areas, the Selkirks and the nearby Cabinet-Yaak Range, the bears are in jeopardy because biologists fear they are not reproducing fast enough to sustain themselves.

And one of the biggest potential threats to the estimated 46 Selkirk grizzlies is a timber company's desire to log its land in Pend Oreille County, in the northeastern corner of Washington.

Stimson Lumber Co. believes it can log the 2,000 acres south of Ione without hurting the bears, and the federal government agreed, approving the company's proposal after an environmental impact statement.

That approval prompted the Sierra Club in early October to sue the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court in Portland, Ore., to block construction of roads that Stimson needs to reach its timber.

The lawsuit said the environmental review was ''fundamentally flawed'' and does not adequately protect the struggling populations of grizzlies, woodland caribou, lynx and bull trout in the Selkirks.

Stimson Lumber owns the land it wants to log, but the parcels are surrounded by the Colville National Forest. The company asked the U.S. Forest Service to build seven access roads across the federal land to reach the 20 million board-feet of timber.

''That's enough timber to keep a small-sized sawmill operating for about half a year,'' said Dwight Opp, a manager for Stimson in Newport. Timber from the land would be sent to mills in Colville, Priest River, Idaho, and Libby, Mont., he said.

The roads total less than three miles, and the company agreed to minimize impacts to wildlife, Opp said.

''It will not cause the species to go extinct,'' Opp said.

But environmentalists contend the roads would eventually lure outdoors enthusiasts into the bears' habitat, increasing chances the bears will be killed.

Of the 50 grizzlies radio-collared in the Selkirks since 1983, 20 have been killed by humans, the environmental group said. Most grizzly deaths in the lower 48 are caused by conflicts with humans who move into the bears' ever-shrinking habitat.

The Selkirks are also home to the last surviving woodland caribou herd in the Lower 48, estimated at about 30 animals, the lawsuit said. That species is listed as endangered. Canadian lynx and bull trout are listed as threatened.

''These are species on the brink,'' said Mark Sprengel of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. ''This project will push them over the edge.''

Some business leaders in Pend Oreille County, where the unemployment rate for the 11,000 residents hovers at about 8 percent, said the resource-dependent economy is also headed over a cliff.

Despite 350,000 acres of forest lands, logging has been sharply reduced in the county because of environmental concerns, and there are no more sawmills operating there, said Jim Jeffers of Pend Oreille County Economic Development.

''That's the reason we are the depressed county we are,'' Jeffers said in Newport, where high school teams are called the Grizzlies.

The lawsuit seeks to protect the rights of landowners in the West, where much of the land is owned by the government, Jeffers said.

''All they are looking for is road access across a national forest to their land,'' Jeffers said of Stimson Lumber.

Urban residents should also worry about losing recreation access to forests if roads cannot be built, Jeffers said.

Grizzly bears once roamed much of the mountain West, but there are estimated to be fewer than 1,000 left in the lower 48 states. Most live in the Yellowstone and Glacier national park ecosystems. The Cabinet-Yaak population is estimated at only about 35 grizzlies.

Efforts to reintroduce grizzly bears in some remote parts of the West, especially the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness on the Idaho-Montana border, have met harsh opposition from people worried the carnivores will attack humans and livestock.

That makes the existing recovery zones especially critical.

The Selkirks and the Cabinet-Yaak are the last lower elevation habitat for grizzlies. The wet, dense forests are made up of cedar and hemlock trees and are ideal for the bears.

But the two areas each cover a relatively small 2,000 square miles, and any logging roads built into them will be lethal to the bears, the lawsuit contended.

Roads bring humans into bear country, causing conflicts that often result in dead bears. Roads also can push bears out of traditional feeding and shelter sites, making it more difficult for cubs to survive, the lawsuit said.

Willcox said grizzly bears are slow to reproduce, making their recovery difficult. Females do not reproduce until age 6, bearing one or two cubs every other year. The cubs are slow starters, needing several years of maternal care before they can survive on their own.

In 1999 and 2000, nine bears in the Cabinet-Yaak perished, Willcox said.

They included ''Christy,'' a 200-pound 3-year-old female who was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds in the Yaak Valley last year. The loss of a female before she can reproduce is a disaster, Willcox said

No grizzly cubs were spotted in the Cabinet-Yaak this year, and only one in the Selkirks, Willcox said.

''Their future is very much in question,'' Willcox said. ''Stimson Lumber is the nail in the coffin.''


On the Web:

Stimson Lumber: http://www.stimsonlumber.com/Company/company.html

Sierra Club grizzly project: http://grizzly.sierraclub.org

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