What Norton left unsaid is what she will do about the sad shape of isolated pockets of grizzlies in the U.S. that are drifting closer to extinction by the day. For instance, the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population in northwest Montana is believed to number no more than 30 animals. The real number is likely closer to 20 according to independent scientists who study these bears. The bears live largely in the Kootenai National Forest, one of the most logged and roaded areas in the Northern Rockies. Earthjustice challenges Norton on her statement this week where she said, "The grizzlies deserve the best opportunities for their populations to thrive and prosper, and I am fully committed to recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states."
"The North Cascade population of grizzlies in Washington state isn't prospering," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold. "There are only an estimated 5 to 20 bears there. Gale Norton is woefully silent on what steps will be taken to restore this ghost bear population."
The grizzly is the victim of multiple layers of historic misfortune. Gone from 98 percent of its historic range in the lower-48 states, the remnant populations were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. They never received the protection critical habitat designation bestows because the ESA did not require these designations until the 1982 amendments to the Act. Without having designated critical habitat, hundreds of bears have been killed and thousands of acres of prime grizzly habitat in the Northern Rockies have been lost to logging, road building, development and mining. These grizzlies now live in isolated islands of habitat surrounded by development. Efforts by conservation groups to get several of the isolated bear populations reclassified from threatened to endangered have fallen on deaf ears in the Bush administration. The US Fish and Wildlife service has found the reclassification petitions to be "warranted but precluded" which means the best science agrees the bears deserve more protection but the government won't spend the money needed to change the classifications. "These bear populations are teetering on the brink of extinction. If Gale Norton really cares about saving them, she should give them the full protection of the Endangered Species Act instead of delay tactics," said Honnold.
"Grizzlies would have gained some of the same benefits of critical habitat designation if the Clinton Roadless rule outlawing road building in 58.5 million acres of the national forests had been adopted by the Bush administration," said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. " The Yellowstone grizzly population spends 20 percent to 40 percent of its time in lands outside Yellowstone Park, including four million acres of Forest Service lands covered by the Roadless Rule. The Bush administration turned its back on the grizzlies and on the wishes of the majority of the American public who overwhelmingly support the roadless rule by moving to "amend" the rule thereby undermining its effectiveness."