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JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) – Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area will remain in genetic isolation if plans to reintroduce grizzlies to central Idaho and western Montana are dropped, according to a federal biologist.

Returning grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness ecosystem would be “a big stepping stone to connect Yellowstone with populations to the north,” said Chris Servheen, who oversees grizzly recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Interior Department.

Continued isolation of Yellowstone’s grizzlies will pose a threat to the species in 30 to 40 years, Servheen said.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has proposed scrapping the reintroduction plan, which called for transplanting 25 bears beginning this summer to wilderness areas stretching across central Idaho and into western Montana. The plan had been approved by the Clinton administration. Her final decision is expected in late August.

“We did not have the support of the governors,” said Interior spokesman John Wright. “Without the support of the governors … the program wouldn’t have the best chance to succeed.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that between 400 and 600 grizzlies live in the greater Yellowstone area, which includes northwest Wyoming and parts of south-central Montana and eastern Idaho.

Although the agency estimates the population is growing at a rate of 2 percent to 4 percent annually, the bears have been isolated from other grizzly populations for the past century. Thus, Yellowstone’s grizzlies are less genetically diverse than grizzlies in Montana’s Northern Rockies and in Canada.

Researchers have concluded that if new genes are not introduced into the Yellowstone population within three to four generations, the bears could suffer from inbreeding, Servheen said.

But, he added, “It’s not a crisis by any means. We’ve got generations of grizzly bears to make this decision.”

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