"Warning: Bears in the area."
That's what the signs hanging around Deadhorse, Alaska, said. The grizzlies had been spotted making their way around the camp, presumably for picnic baskets.
This was the first time in my life when I could credibly say there was at least some danger that I might be eaten by a bear. (I was in Deadhorse, several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, to research a forthcoming article in National Review about proposed oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.)
Shortly before I arrived in the land of the midnight sun, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton announced that she wants to reverse a Clinton Administration proposal to introduce grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness area, straddling the border between Idaho and Montana.
In the lower 48 - what we savvy Alaskan vets call the tenderfoot areas below Canada - the grizzlies have lost about 98 percent of their native territory. The plan Norton hopes to nix calls for "reintroducing" 25 mostly Canadian grizzlies into the area. (I don't know why they call it reintroducing since these particular bears never lived there in the first place.)
Norton's decision makes Idaho Republican Governor Dirk Kempthorne very happy. For years, he's railed against the federal government's campaign to import "massive, flesh-eating carnivores into Idaho."
Idaho citizens are mostly anti-bear too. A typical letter to the Idaho Statesman reads, "I wonder how the federal government will finance the upcoming lawsuits when our children are ripped apart and eaten by these large man-eaters."
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club dubs this so much "bear hysteria." Louisa Willcox, the organization's bear coordinator (sounds like she makes sure the fur matches the curtains) told the press that Kempthorne's rhetoric has been "irresponsible and unintelligent."
I'd have to say I agree.
My trip north of the Yukon notwithstanding, my normal idea of the outdoors is the grassy median between the parking lot and the mall. Almost all the bears I've known have been named Yogi, Fozzie, Smokey, Papa, Mama or Baby - or they've been behind bars at the zoo.
I love bears the way only those free from fear of them can. In fact, my soon-to-be bride is from Fairbanks, Alaska, where bears are more common than in my native lands of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
She gets a good malamute snarl going whenever I suggest that bears are cute. She says Disney movies about the animals are nothing but "bear propaganda." She's also fond of pointing out that grizzlies eat overly ironic writers from Manhattan, too: "You think your higher bagel level prevents them from eating your face off?" she asks lividly.
"Lies, all lies," I respond. "I'm sure if you scratch them just-(ital) so (end ital) under the chin, they roll over and wait for you to rub their bellies."
Our spats are a nice illustration of the ideological split between City Mice like me and Country Mice like her.
I'm totally sympathetic to the resentments of Idahoans (and their Alaskan fellow-travelers) who see a bunch of Discovery channel-watching latte-drinkers from back East putting fuzzy-land sharks in their back yards. Nevertheless, I back the reintroduction plan.
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service gets to dictate Idaho's bear policy precisely because there are so few grizzlies left. Besides, Idaho's native bear population is growing, just not rapidly, so Idaho would have to deal with more grizzlies eventually no matter what.
Under the reintroduction plan, control of the more robust bear population would be slowly shifted to the local authorities currently screaming about federal intrusion. That's why the Idaho timber industry backs the plan - so it can get out from under Uncle Sam's red tape.
There's also the pesky fact that bears don't kill people very often. The federal government says only one Idahoan every few decades would be killed by the bears. Sure, if you're that one person, those aren't the best statistics. But that's still a lot fewer than the deaths caused by lightning, domestic dog bites, bee stings or food poisoning.
I can report that on the North Slope of Alaska, bears haven't killed an oil worker in two decades. And there's no shortage of grizzlies up there.
Indeed, opponents reject the plan based on mortality numbers they'd gladly accept if we were talking about deregulating guns or HMOs or any other federally controlled activity. If the feds stopped regulating, say, food standards or speed limits, vastly more people would die than one person every few decades as a result. And leave-us-alone conservatives would rightly cheer, saying, "that's the price of freedom."
But when the feds want to actually fix the problem - by restoring the bear population and then handing the controls back to the local authorities - states' righters like Governor Kempthorne balk.
I'm willing to take the risk because I love bears, but then again I'm writing this from a safe distance, latte in hand.