WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton on Wednesday proposed rescinding a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears into the Bitterroot ecosystem of central Idaho and western Montana.
Her proposal, if carried out, would roll back yet another Clinton administration environmental action. It is certain to anger environmentalists who believe the Bitterroot initiative is the best strategy for expanding the habitat of the grizzly, a threatened species.
"It's the area best suited to re-establishing a robust grizzly population," said Tom France, a National Wildlife Federation representative who helped draft the plan to manage the reintroduction. "This is very, very disappointing."
Norton defended her decision by stressing she wants to focus on efforts to bolster existing grizzly bear populations, rather than starting new ones.
"The grizzlies deserve the best opportunities for their populations to thrive and prosper, and I am fully committed to the recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48," she said.
The reversal was sought by Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who sued the government to halt the reintroduction of what he called "massive, flesh-eating carnivores."
Norton's decision reflected her belief that a successful reintroduction program could not occur without strong local support, according to Meg Durham, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior Department agency charged with protecting endangered and threatened species.
The public will have a 60-day comment period before a final decision is reached. Norton's proposal is likely to doom the plan, although Durham said future reintroduction of the species in the Bitterroot area has not been ruled out.
Idaho politicians praised Norton's decision.
"It is critical that any grizzly recovery program be achieved through building consensus rather than federal edict," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Wildlife advocates decried the reversal, saying it would undermine efforts to return the grizzly bear to the lower 48. "This is extremely damaging to grizzly bear conservation," said Bob Ferris of Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group that focuses on threatened and endangered species.
Ferris said it was especially disturbing that Norton rejected this particular plan, because it was developed over several years with the participation of local logging companies, and would have been administered by a 15-member citizen management committee.
Norton has advocated increased local participation in Interior Department decision-making to develop consensus among various "stakeholders" -- including environmentalists, landowners, business interests and local officials.
"Logically, this should have been a program that she embraced," said Ferris.
An estimated 50,000 grizzly bears lived in the contiguous United States prior to European settlement. The population has dwindled to an estimated 1,100 grizzlies.
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