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Mineral County to take part in grizzly bear project

by MONTE TURNER
Mineral Independent | September 20, 2023 12:00 AM

The grizzly bear project description reads as such: The service will develop an Environmental Impact Statement that considers a reasonable range of alternatives that can accomplish the purpose and need of restoring grizzly bears to the Bitterroot ecosystem. The service will conduct a public scoping period upon publication of a notice of intent in the federal register which is tentatively scheduled around the end of December 2023. The final EIS and record of decision (ROD) will be finalized by the court ordered deadline of October 2026.

“This is a huge deal for Mineral County,” explained Wally Congdon, Deputy District Attorney for Mineral County. “We’ve been invited to the table to help with the formation of this project, rather than just having it handed to us and basically told, ‘Comment on this.’”

The Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator is Hilary Cooley, who is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working through the University of Montana.

“My position is responsible for coordinating grizzly bear recovery under the Endangered Species Act,” she explained. “It’s a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process that we’ve started that is to look at options for restoring the grizzly bear population to the Bitterroot Ecosystem. Actually, 23 years ago, we went through this same process and decided in the year 2000 to reintroduce bears. And we never did it. It was not funded and we took no action. We were challenged in court on this a year and a half ago and we lost. The judge said, ‘You need to go back and update that and finish the process.’ Not that we have to reintroduce but go back and do it again.”

In 2006, a valiant effort was made to complete this but it unraveled, not at this end, but in Washington D.C. Much of that information remains current so there is a base to begin the process.

The four recovery zones in this area are the Bitterroot, the Cabinet-Yaak, the Greater Yellowstone, and the Northern Continental Divide with the Selkirk next door in Idaho.

Mineral County is a corridor between the Bitterroot and Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Zones, which is imperative for breeding diverse DNA into the populations and zones. There have been confirmed grizzly appearances over the years but the specialists feel they are transitory.

Some long timers say that there are a couple that live here, so science, industry, and experience will blend to make this recovery project and plan a working tool for many years.

The process will have an impact that affects summer and winter recreation, timber, road closures, firewood gathering, etc., and Willy Peck, Mineral County Natural Resource Advisor, will be the representative for the county participating in the meeting discussions as this develops, which isn’t going to be a slam-dunk, by any means.

Peck is also co-chair of the Mineral County Resource Coalition which has been a successful collaborative with environmental organizations, ranchers, the Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources, and citizens who value the resources here and understand the economic impact of the timber industry.

“It's a chance for us to bring to the table, which we have, is special expertise,” said Congdon. “We know what the rules are regarding garbage cans. We have ideas of where the orchards are. Where the beehives are, and where they should not be. More people do things that are an attractant than they realize. Is there a backyard compost pile, a dump facility? Things that are nuisance values for wildlife. And we also have an idea about mitigation strategies from basic to heightened deterrents and not just those created by federal or state entities. Sharing tried-and-true information is a vital part of this project and plan.”

At this point, Cooley continues to form the committee and eventually a project manager will be hired.

She said, “This is a sensitive subject and no decisions have been made. There will be lots of public involvement as this will take time to complete.”