- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2001

ALONG THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, Wyo.(AP)— "Grizzly Bear Area!"
"Special Rules Apply!" screams the bright orange sign.
Riding atop North America's burly shoulders, miles from the nearest pavement, outfitter Tory Taylor pats his holster.
Instead of carrying a six-shooter — this is the New West, after all — it holds a can of hot pepper spray. To deter danger, humanely.
No "Ursus arctos horribilis" here. Although nobody can say they weren't warned if one appears, snarling.
But. With grizzlies, there's always a but.
"If their stomachs are empty, they're liable to go anywhere," he says, spurring his horse.
So are humans. That's the problem.
America is hungry for fuel. And industry, backed by the Bush administration, wants to drill for oil and natural gas on almost a million acres of back country in the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests — areas where the grizzly bear is largely free to roam.
"Looking at the energy crisis that we're in," says Dru Bower, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, "it's irresponsible to withdraw an area from availability when there are known resources that can be recovered."
National forests are working lands. Some oil and gas wells already are pumping in less-sensitive areas of the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton. Given the proper permits, petroleum geologists could go exploring many new spots before the snow flies in autumn.
If necessary, drilling supporters want to go all the way to the dizzying ridge in the Rocky Mountains where Mr. Taylor is riding.
Opponents say the drilling plans are deliberately provocative.
In the Shoshone, for example, an exploratory well is proposed beneath Ramshorn Peak, where 15 of the bears have been tracked using radio collars, along with wolves, lynx and the northern goshawk, an endangered bird of prey.
"They know where the critical habitat is," says Lloyd Dorsey of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. "To say it is a coincidence they want to drill there would really be stretching it."
Environmentalists fear industrial development would bring the same result as a bullet.
Bears, they say, "always lose."
The grizzly is listed as a threatened species — one step safer than endangered status, but still scarce and protected by law. There are only 1,110 remaining in the lower 48 states, a tiny fraction of the estimated 100,000 grizzlies that roamed the West in the 19th century. More than half live in Yellowstone.
"You'll never see a grizzly in an oil field," says Liz Howell of the Sierra Club.
Industry officials say they would tailor their work to comply with the Endangered Species Act and other regulations. The U.S. Forest Service and other agencies now are deep into a bureaucratic evaluation of the problems that drilling poses.
Few creatures are considered more important in this corner than the grizzly, America's largest land predator. An adult can weigh 900 pounds. Standing on its hind legs, it would dwarf 7-foot-1 basketball star Shaquille O'Neal.
Grizzlies have killed 17 persons in the lower 48 in the past century. However, they tend to be shy and rather high-strung, despite their huge bulk and ferocious reputations. Even distant noise can prompt them to abandon their dens, abort fetuses and suffer stress-related illness, scientists warn.
Their real conflict is with ranchers. In dry years, some bears risk capture and elimination by boldly venturing into the valleys to eat livestock.
Last year, 33 grizzlies were killed or found dead. Most were mistakenly shot by hunters; others either wandered into highways or were destroyed by authorities for transgressions against humans.
The Bush White House has abandoned a Clinton administration plan to reintroduce 25 grizzlies into Idaho wilderness west of Yellowstone.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton has said she is "fully committed" to the bears' survival, but won't reintroduce them into new lands without community support.
Scientists say Mrs. Norton's decision dooms grizzlies to interbreeding in national parks and other "isolated islands of habitat."
"Drilling could be the last straw that pushes imperiled wildlife like the grizzly to edge of extinction," Mr. Dorsey predicts.
All of which begs the question: How much energy is up here?
According to a 1995 assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey, 229 million barrels of oil are technically recoverable in the area of Wyoming immediately east of Yellowstone, including the Shoshone, known as the Sub-Absaroka Play.
It's a modest reserve that even petroleum experts concede would be challenging to tap using today's methods. If companies were to bore through volcanic rock, "they might hit something," suggests Chris Schenk, project chief of the USGS assessment.
More appealing is the southern reach of the Bridger-Teton, closer to existing natural-gas fields. One estimate suggests parcels there might hold 80 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to supply 1 million homes for decades.
Questions persist. How many wells? Would they be profitable? For how long?
There's only one way to find out.
"We'll never know what's in there, under that ground, unless we're allowed to drill," says Don Likwartz, director of Wyoming's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
After leasing, production would be delayed by several more years of additional studies and permits. Every drill site must be restored, too.
"We can't turn over a rock without approvals from several agencies," complains Mr. Bower of the petroleum association.
Environmental groups pledge to seek an injunction to keep every rock right where it is.
"There will not be a well drilled unless a federal judge tells us so," says attorney Tim Preso of Earthjustice, formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
"What we're seeing in this little corner could play itself out across large parts of the West, particularly in critical wildlife strongholds."
Industry officials complain that the public tug of war between precious energy and imperiled wildlife has turned into a distorted popularity contest.
It's the latest in a series of public showdowns that have erupted in the Yellowstone region involving species considered to be emblems of the American West. Elk, bison, wolves — all have triggered bitter quarrels with landowners and ranchers, many of them smaller operators who have lived here for generations.
The prospect of energy drilling triggers a more visceral reaction. It's Big Business, bringing roads, utilities, pipelines, waste pits and dehydration plants to the back country.
"Resources are where they are," Mr. Bower declares. "We can't decide where they should be located. Mother Nature doesn't work that way."

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