MISSOULA, Mont. -- Is there room for bears in a crowded world?
Experts around the globe can be found brooding over the unfavorable mathematics: at the approach of the 21st century, there are fewer bears remaining on the planet than there are people in San Diego or Phoenix. Every four days the world adds more people than there are surviving bears. Today, six of eight species of the animals are declining in numbers, sometimes frighteningly so, as the human population increases.
So, will there be a place for bears in the future?
Probably not. But then again . . . maybe. So say the experts.
"We're running out of habitat because there are just too damned many two-legged bears. We're doing to the grizzly in North America what the grizzly did to those bears before it. We're a better species and we're wiping them out," says Charles Jonkel, a Montana zoologist and co-founder of the International Conference on Bear Research and Management.
"We're going to lose all the bears," Mr. Jonkel continues. "It's just a matter of time. The world is getting poorer and more crowded. And that makes people ornery. And there's nothing on God's green Earth we can do about it."
It's not altogether natural, however, for naturalists to surrender a cause while the Earth still grows green. Not without a fight.
And so when the world's most distinguished 450 ursine scientists and advocates gathered here recently, some hope brightened the gloom. It was the ninth such gathering of world experts in a quarter century. Maybe there will be time for nine more, or 90. No one was taking bets.
"If I want to know how the bears are doing, I ask, 'How are the people doing?' They are indicator species for each other. When the people are struggling you can pretty much figure the bears are, too. When people are crowded, same with the bears. What's good habitat for loggers is good habitat for bears; when the loggers start running out of trees, the bears are in trouble."
The country philosopher is Lance Olsen, the leader of the Montana-based Great Bear Foundation, an organization devoted to trying to save North America's grizzly bears, which are known elsewhere in the world as brown bears.
Like many of the other experts, Mr. Olsen can argue the future either way. The very thing that is so troubling -- the scarcity of bears and places for them to roam -- offers the hope now for saving them. They have become valuable because they are so few. And they are valuable not just for themselves. They have come to symbolize the shrinking domain of healthy forests, clean water, wildness and freedom.
"This planet is becoming so small and people are realizing if they wreck it, there is nowhere else to go. Like many human emotions, this doesn't come out until what you have is almost gone," said Christopher Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the foremost bear experts in the world.
He is co-chairman of bear research for the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In the spring of 1993, his group plans to publish an action plan for saving the world's bears.
Many of the scientists think the benchmark test looms just outside of town here, in the great remaining wild tracts of the Rocky Mountains.
Barely 100 years ago, the mountains and the plains extending in both directions, from the Pacific Coast into the Midwest, were home to 50,000 or more grizzlies. Today there are fewer than 1,000 -- maybe far fewer -- in isolated high-mountain pockets of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and maybe in the Cascades of Washington.
For 11 years, the federal government has been trying to preserve these bears. They have become the most heavily managed in the world. The cost has been about $1 million a year, or more than $1,000 per bear. Literally hundreds of scientists and activists are devoted to the cause.
Most of the leading experts on the future of the grizzly in the Lower 48 states say this: If the United States -- with its growing environmentalist movement, with still-unspoiled space for bears, with its affluence, and with the energy of its federal government -- cannot preserve an endangered bear, what country can?
City dwellers may hold the key. Scientists like Stephen R. Kellert of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies say that government officials in the West have been "far too conservative" in rallying urban support for efforts to save bears. Mr. Kellert's studies show that wildlife has many friends and few critics in the cities -- an abstract kinship, perhaps, but a passionate one.
Rural areas adjacent to the remaining bear sanctuaries, on the other hand, generate significant land-user opposition to protecting both habitat and the bears themselves. And to date, that is where most of the public hearings and political decisions about bear conservation are made.
California, the only state with the grizzly bear on its flag, is illustrative of how fast a bear population can be eliminated. About 10,000 of the animals roamed the valleys and foothills of California at the time of the Gold Rush in 1849. The last known California grizzly was killed in the 1920s.
Outside of the West and interior Alaska, the grizzly is known as the brown bear, but it is the same species. The total estimated world population is 180,000 and declining.
Canadian and Alaskan populations of brown bears are much healthier than in the 48 contiguous states, although forestry, oil and gas development and outdoor recreation are carving up the bear's ranges there. For all its mighty reputation for power and size, the brown bear has proved ill-equipped to cope with development, and it is cursed with one of nature's lowest reproductive rates.
Canadian bear scientist Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary said that brown bears in Canada are dying off at a "frightening rate" on the edges of national parks, where they are attracted by garbage and come into conflict with development.
Still, the most alarming recent event for brown bears is the political instability in the former Soviet Union. "Most sad," said University of Moscow biologist Igor Chestin. According to Mr. Chestin and his colleagues at the conference, the breakaway central Asian republics do not share concerns of developed countries about saving bears. "The bears are threatened because people don't like them there," he said.
In the broader reaches of Siberia and elsewhere in Russia, economic demands threaten to unleash a massive lumber and energy boom, often in conjunction with Asian timber companies. Scientists say there are far too few conservation officials to protect the bears' habitat or the bears themselves from poaching.
In many regards it is impossible to generalize about bears. But in other ways it is easy.
"We're not going to convince the people of the world they should save the forests for the bears. We've got to convince them to save the forests for their own good. And that will be good for the bear," said Mr. Servheen.
"It's the same in Malaysia as Burma, as in the U.S. or France. I can close my eyes and beam myself from Libby, Mont., to Lahad Datu, Borneo, and it's the same economy. It's a resource-based timber economy. If they run out of timber, they run out of jobs. In Lahad Datu the same as in Libby. And they are.
"We have maybe 20 years. This generation -- our's -- will be the one that decides the fate of the bear."