- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

Forest managers are finding themselves in grizzly dilemmas thanks to forest fire management and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The actual grizzly problem ignited last August 15, when lightning struck a tree in Flathead National Forest, located in northwest Montana, not too far from Glacier National Park. It caused the largest fire seen in Flathead in nearly a century, the catastrophic Moose Fire, which eventually consumed about 71,000 acres of Montana forestland.

While extinguishing the fire, firefighters discovered a partially burned, decayed corpse of a grizzly bear within the burned zone. The scientists who examined the grisly grizzly determined that it had been killed by the fire. According to John Fraley, a spokesperson for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks service, this is probably the first documented case of a grizzly being killed by a wildfire.

"Documented" is a key term, since forest fires have a rather nasty habit of endangering the critters that are in their path, regardless of how threatened they are. A slew of species, endangered and otherwise, were slain during the fires that swept through Yellowstone in 1988, according to a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources staffer who asked not to be named.

Such grisly slayings can happen, and often do, whenever forest fires ignite. However, longstanding federal fire-suppression policies, and the adamant stands of environmentalists who argue against any sort of forest management via "unnatural" methods of tree-thinning have caused threatened species like grizzly bears to become even more endangered by forest fires, especially during extremely droughty years.

That's because forests grow photosynthesis drives the buildup of fuel. Periodic fires serve as flaming pruning shears, cutting away some of the excess wood. However, even large-scale fires typically consume only a small fraction of the available fuel, and if those fires are prevented, then the trees that fall in an empty forest will be heard when they ignite in second-stage fires.

Those fires move just as fast, and burn just as furiously as normal forest fires, but do so only about 6 feet off the ground. The result is a sort of Mount St. Helens effect without a Starbucks nearby. That's bad news for the endangered critters that had hoped to feed off the newly charred surroundings, and even worse news for the creatures that have inadvertently become permanent exhibits upon it.

Such fires have been igniting across the West with an increasing intensity, at least partially a result of federal fire-suppression policies, which have interfered with naturally occurring burns. That has created unnaturally high fuel levels across the West, setting up tinderbox conditions. It's worth noting that the environmentalists opposed to tree-thinning by any means are actually urging forest managers to take a course that nature never intended.

Of course, nature doesn't ever "intend" anything. But attempting to lock forests and the creatures within in a sort of Thoreauian stasis is not simply wildly unnatural, its also utterly impossible. "Change is the rule," in forests, John Castello, a forest pathologist at New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., recently told the New York Times' Science section.

That continuing stream of change means all forest management decisions have potentially adverse consequences for at least some of the creatures living within. However, the ESA doesn't permit the tradeoffs are an inevitable part of ecosystem management, thus setting up potentially grisly dilemmas.

On the one hand, the ESA mandates that the grizzly be protected against all hazards. Since scientists could make a plausible case that the failure to thin forests would threaten the lives of those endangered bears, federal forest managers could easily interpret that as a clear-cut mandate to, well, clear-cut.

However, the ESA's strictures also demand that no harm come to the critical habitat of an endangered species, nor to their activities within those habitats. "Harm" has an extremely broad definition it could be construed to come from almost any sort of human undertaking anywhere endangered species are found. For instance, the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that any alteration in the "essential behavioral patterns" (such as swimming, spawning, or sucking worms) of endangered fish constitutes plausible, and thus prohibited, harm.

So what should forest managers do? Cutting into the critical habitat of a threatened bear would almost certainly alter its lifestyle in an unbearable way; not cutting almost certainly will lead to additional grisly grizzly deaths. Forest managers can't attempt to arrest Vulcan and Prometheus (it isn't that Vulcan's hammer tends to have a crushing effect on arresting posses, its that the Interior Department considers weather gods to be an endangered species), and if they lock themselves up, they will still be in violation of the ESA since no one will be around to protect the grizzly.

Ultimately, the conserve-at-all costs strictures within the ESA need to be modified with common-sense measures reflecting ecosystem flux. Reform is needed, before forest managers find themselves in a constant stream of grizzly dilemmas.


Charles Rousseaux is an editor for the Commentary pages and an editorial writer for The Washington Times.


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