& & by Ben Long & & & &

Elected officials in Idaho are in a tizzy over the U.S. Fish & amp; Wildlife Service's plan to reintroduce grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Me? I'm all for the grizzlies. And why stop there? I say we airlift in some Democrats, Idaho's other endangered species, before they follow the Great Bear over the brink of extinction.

I say we fly officials with dart guns to nearby biological reservoirs that have a surplus of Democrats. (Butte, Mont., and Portland, Ore., come to mind.) Then we release 25 or so liberals into formerly viable Democrat habitat in Idaho. (Say, Coeur d'Alene, Orofino or Moscow.)

If left alone to reproduce naturally, that core of 25 Democrats could gradually grow into a viable subpopulation. With such a boost, Democrats could regain a seat or two in the Idaho Legislature by the year 3515.

Maybe I'm just cranky, listening to all of Idaho's politicians gripe about the idea of restoring the state's wilderness to the state God made it. That is, by replacing one of the key components of the ecological landscape, grizzlies. I've concluded one thing: These politicians don't know much about bears. And they probably don't know much about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, either.

When announcing that Idaho would sue the federal government if it tries to bring in grizzlies, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne called grizzlies "massive, flesh-eating carnivores." Besides being redundant, that's a gross overstatement.

Grizzlies in northwestern Montana, where I live, get by just fine on a vegetarian diet. Biologists figure bears here get 90-95 percent of their calories from roots, grass and berries. You can get more red meat in one night at a Boise steakhouse than a Montana grizzly is likely to taste all year long.

But Idaho politicians like to play on fear. They note that grizzlies are large, fast and potentially dangerous. But so are moose, mountain lions and black bears. And Idaho is loaded with them.

As a kid, I grew up backpacking in the Selway-Bitterroot. Now, I live outside Glacier National Park, in the county that has more grizzly bears than any other outside Alaska. I sleep just fine in a tent in either venue. I hunt, fish, hike and berry pick in grizzly country, nearly every weekend. I like having the big bruins around.

It's true that grizzly bears do occasionally hurt (and even kill) people in Glacier Park. Humans do the same thing, of course, in places like Pocatello. I sleep well in Pocatello, too. It's a matter of perspective.

Glacier Park is not the Selway-Bitterroot. The best grizzly habitat in Glacier Park is shot through with roads and sees some 2 million visitors annually. That's like ramming the entire population of Boise through prime grizzly habitat every summer, 15 times. And most of those visitors have nary a clue how to behave in the backcountry.

The Selway-Bitterroot is big and remote. There are no paved roads to speak of, and few dirt ones. It will never see the kind of visitation that Glacier does. The Selway-Bitterroot is a lot like Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness. The Bob has grizzlies, like Glacier. But in the last 100 years, only one wilderness visitor has been killed by a grizzly -- and that was a bear hunter who wounded the animal and followed it into dense cover decades ago.

I expect once grizzly bears are returned to Idaho, the local citizenry will be surprised at how rarely they see them. They will also enjoy a twist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal: A citizen's oversight committee will tell the agency how to recover grizzlies in the Selway-Bitterroot. It's a great opportunity for Idahoans to prove their mettle. And it's a great opportunity for future Idahoans to have back one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring mammals in North America.

Decades ago, Idaho supplemented its shot-out elk herds with animals from Yellowstone National Park. In more recent years, Idaho has imported woodland caribou from British Columbia, wolves from Alberta (not to mention neo-Nazis from California). If Idaho politicians can get a grip on reality and let go of their unreasonable fears, it won't be long before grizzly bears are just another feature of the Idaho landscape. They'll fit right into the state's sprawling wilderness and be a lot less scary than the right-wing kooks that hang out around Hayden Lake.

Idaho is big enough for loggers, backpackers and grizzly bears. And maybe even a few Democrats.

& & & lt;i & en Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Kalispell, Mont. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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