Despite their size, cunning and fearsome reputation, there are a lot of things that can befall grizzly bears as they negotiate the perils of nature.
Likewise, there are myriad ways a multi-agency effort to recover a threatened species can go off the rails.
In his new book “Journey of the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear,” retired Idaho Fish and Game biologist Steve Nadeau details both.
Nadeau, a bear of a man and a grizzly advocate, spent several years as a staff biologist at the agency’s Clearwater region in Lewiston. His book tells the tale of a young grizzly in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho who eventually makes his way south into the Bitterroots and the wildlife history books. It was the first grizzly in decades known to inhabit the area identified by wildlife professionals as a potential grizzly recovery area.
Nadeau also delivers an insider’s view of the 1990’s and early 2000’s effort that led to a grand compromise to reintroduce grizzly bears into Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church wilderness areas.
He weaves the real bear’s partially fictionalized saga in and out of his own history as a biologist working on the reintroduction effort. Both the bear and the effort would face powerful enemies, serious and minor setbacks, as well as important victories and milestones.
The bear, known as BB, nearly met his end more than once during scrapes with wolves and other grizzlies. But in time he grew strong, powerful and confident. Likewise, the reintroduction effort and Nadeau himself would come up against political foes from within and outside of government.
In the end, the effort and the bear met similar dark outcomes more than a decade ago that seemingly slammed the door on grizzly recovery. That door, however, has been pushed, and perhaps crashed, open recently by other intrepid grizzlies that have followed in BB’s steps.
“Journey of the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear” is self-published, but don’t let that steer you away. It’s a quality piece of work filled with fine writing and keen insights into bear biology, politics and human nature. The book is available on Nadeau’s website, stevenadeauauthor.com and through Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
Readers who are familiar with wildlife management in Idaho will recognize many of the names in the book, an extra incentive to give it a read. Some are woven into the story, others are listed in appendices.
“I put their names in there because I wanted people to be recognized for their efforts. This is to memorialize their efforts as well as the folks who were on the front lines.”
Tribune Outdoors spoke with Nadeau, of Boise, who has closely followed recent confirmed sightings, photographs and tracks of grizzly bears in north-central Idaho.
“It’s an exciting time for bear supporters, but at the same time it’s a little scary thinking about these bears working their way through a gauntlet to get into central Idaho, and once they get here we are not really prepared for them,” he said.
When the plan to plant grizzly bears into the area was finally killed, so too was a designation that reintroduced bears would fall under more flexible management known as the 10J rule of the Endangered Species Act.
In its place, and by default, the government chose a “natural recovery” plan, meaning it would allow bears to find the area on their own but wouldn’t help them to do so. Those bears are fully protected as a threatened species under the ESA.
“Now that we know there are bears in the area and resident bears there, that should trigger a bunch of different things under the ESA,” Nadeau said. “So Fish and Game and (the U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service really need to come to terms with that and realize this is what all the agencies asked for in the ‘90s — a natural recovery process, and now they have to implement what that means.”
Bear hunting is one area that concerns Nadeau. Idaho allows black bear hunters to use bait in the Clearwater region. Bait can and has attracted grizzly bears, Nadeau’s BB among them. He believes if baiting is to be continued in the area, Fish and Game must do more to educate hunters so they don’t mistakenly shoot a grizzly. For example, he suggests bear hunters, especially those hunting in areas where grizzlies are or may be present, be required to take an online bear identification quiz. He also said hunters can be successful without using bait and pointed to Montana, where baiting isn’t allowed, as evidence.
He noted there is an active lawsuit trying to end bear baiting on U.S. Forest Service land in Idaho unless it is specifically permitted by the federal agency. So too have there been efforts to end bear baiting statewide. Both attempts cite the danger baiting brings to grizzly bear recovery. Nadeau thinks state and federal agencies have an opportunity to head off bear baiting litigation by coming up with ways to better protect grizzlies.
“If we address (where baiting is allowed) surgically and critically, where it’s appropriate, then it could offset more broadscale closures because it shows concern for the bears,” he said.
The best thing for grizzlies he said, is to be left alone. He noted a grizzly that was photographed south of Grangeville last summer came from the Selkirks just like BB. That bear, a 4-year-old male, hasn’t had any known negative interactions with humans.
“I’m hoping the bear survives and doesn’t get into trouble and people just go about their lives and not worry too much, because all bears want is to be left alone,” he said.
Nadeau, who worked in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks before coming to Idaho, long ago became comfortable being in grizzly bear country. But he’s aware that fear of the bears and the extra regulations that come with an endangered species is the most common reason people oppose recovery.
“That fear tends to wane the more time you spend in grizzly bear country,” he said. “Your senses become more attuned and alert, much like a hunter’s senses when they are out seeking game.”
As far as regulations, he said that is a hurdle that can be worked around as well.
“Those can all be mitigated through working with agencies,” he said.
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