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  • Louisa Willcox

Restoring the Grizzly in the North Cascades: Their Time Has Come

One of the few bright spots in today’s otherwise bleak landscape of grizzly bear conservation is a proposal to augment a remnant of grizzlies in the wild country of Washington’s North Cascades. The handful of bears still hanging on there have little chance of recovering on their own.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) proposal is laudable and stands in stark contrast to its potentially devastating plans to strip endangered species protections from Yellowstone and Glacier grizzlies and allow a state-sponsored sport hunt. Indeed, the grizzly bear recovery program in the North Cascades should be studied by managers of healthier grizzly bear ecosystems to learn a few lessons.

In January, the FWS and National Park Service released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement covering plans to infuse more grizzlies into this 9800-square mile ecosystem (link). Public comments are due by March 14. After evaluating the comments, the government is expected to release a final proposal within a year, but, with Trump in office, don’t hold your breath.

If restored, grizzlies in the North Cascades would be a major contribution to recovery of the current 1,800 or so grizzly bears currently living in four more-or-less isolated populations in the Northern Rockies.

Why Grizzly Bears Matter in the North Cascades

The vast North Cascades ecosystem is on a par size-wise with the Greater Yellowstone, which supports about 700 grizzlies. Restoring grizzlies to their former prominence in the North Cascades would enrich this currently depauperate ecosystem and bring back something feral to a landscape where many people may conflate ruggedness with the wildness brought by an untamed, intelligent, and even dangerous animal.

Because of their large home ranges (200-400 square miles) and their sensitivity to development, grizzly bears also serve as barometers for the health of ecosystems. If bears are healthy, other species and even the water itself tend to be healthy as well.

Moreover, at the top of the food chain, the grizzly bear provides ecosystem services. Bears can, in fact, be ecosystem engineers: by rototilling forage plants like glacier lily and biscuitroot with their long claws, they can help enrich to soil and cultivate a veritable garden. In some places, like Yellowstone, they regulate populations of big game such as elk. And along Alaska’s and British Columbia’s coasts, grizzlies help fertilize forests by depositing nitrogen-rich salmon carcasses along spawning streams, as well as feces laden with nutrients.

Perhaps a little more obscurely, grizzly bears remind us to be humble and respect the other species journeying with us on this small planet at a time when people risk becoming disconnected from nature. In native cultures, grizzlies have long been viewed as teachers and guides. Indeed, grizzlies remind that we are all ultimately related. They stand on hind legs, eat the same foods as we do, and nurture and ferociously defend their young. Bears still have much to teach us about becoming our better selves.

A Little Context

Efforts to recover grizzlies in the North Cascades necessarily happen in context of a history of loss and redemption. An estimated 60,000 grizzly bears once roamed what is now the lower-48 states prior to arrival of European settlers. Between the mid-1800s and early 1900s about 97% of the West’s grizzlies were eradicated by settlers armed with guns and the Bible-driven belief that wilderness and wildlife had to be tamed—even eradicated—for them to prosper.

Eventually the pendulum of public opinion swung back in response to the near-extermination of many species, including wolves and bison, as well as the genocide of native peoples. Numerous environmental laws passed during the 1970s recognized that we had gone too far. Passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) stands as testimony to our collective realization that we have a moral obligation to protect other living beings.

Since grizzlies were listed in 1975, most of the government’s attention has focused on recovery in the Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems, where bears are more numerous. A handful of elusive grizzly bears have meanwhile hung on in the North Cascades with little or no help from wildlife managers.

But by the mid-1990s, bears in the North Cascades started to receive more attention. In 1997, the government determined that the ecosystem was still big enough to support a viable grizzly bear population, despite losses of super-abundant salmon runs that had once supported bears and people. Other native foods still abound.

But this natural potential will go unrealized if we leave everything to nature. Grizzlies are not good at colonizing far-flung habitats. They don’t move as far or as fast as wolves, which debars any prospect of natural augmentation by dispersers from the Northern Rockies, hundreds of miles away. More grizzlies must be bought in by humans to jumpstart recovery.

Lessons From Grizzly Reintroductions in Cabinet Yaak

Fortunately, wildlife managers have lots of experience transplanting animals to augment endangered grizzly bear populations. For the last 20 years, the population of grizzlies in the remote Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem of northwest Montana has been routinely boosted by human-assisted transplants from the nearby Northern Continental Divide population. Without this augmentation, the highly-endangered population of 40-50 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak would have likely gone extinct.

And even with the infusion of bears, only two of these transplants appear to have successfully reproduced. This lack of reproductive success highlights some risks that need to be addressed by managers.

First, the history of the Cabinet-Yaak has shown us that roads are a particular problem for bears unfamiliar with a specific landscape. Novice bears are quite simply more likely to wander near roads or onto private lands and get shot. Second, poaching will be a problem anywhere there are rednecks with a bad attitude, as is amply the case in the Cabinet-Yaak. And third, competition from abundant black bears may be a problem, especially for newbie grizzly bears (link).

Yet the Cabinet-Yaak experience provides hope – as well as a warning. Yes, augmentation programs can work, but they are costly, complicated, and time-consuming. And the presence of locally extensive road networks, potential poachers, and a healthy black bear population predictably add to the challenge of recovering grizzlies in the North Cascades.

Gold Star for Education

Anyone familiar with grizzly bear recovery knows that without public support and tolerance, grizzly bears are more likely to be killed. People fear grizzlies more than black bears, which means that a confrontation with a grizzly is more likely to leave the bear dead—especially with so many heavily-armed people out and about. But almost all lethal reactions by people to encounters with grizzlies are unwarranted.

Unfortunately, even with protections offered by the ESA which prohibit killing listed species, humans continue to be the primary cause of grizzly bear deaths. Reducing these deaths is critical to recovery efforts because grizzlies are among the slowest-reproducing mammals in North America.

Gratifyingly, some of the best programs for reaching out to and educating the public about being safe in bear country are being pursued in the North Cascades—paradoxically in the ecosystem with fewest grizzly bears. One remarkable program has been developed by biologist and filmmaker Chris Morgan (link). (See Chris’ very cool recent interview with actor Jeff Bridges about grizzlies in the North Cascades here.)

But many other groups and agencies have been doing great work of raising public awareness about prospects for, not only recovering, but coexisting with grizzlies in the North Cascades blessed by a relatively progressive conservation-friendly regional population, especially in the Puget Sound area. A recent poll shows that 81% of respondents in Washington want wildlife managers to do whatever it must to prevent extirpation of grizzlies from the state (link). Even on the more conservative eastern side of the Cascades, there is solid support for grizzly bears.

Advocates have also learned some important lessons from a failed attempt during 2000 to reintroduce grizzlies into Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem. (For more about this, listen to my interview with Jack Oelfke of North Cascades Park here). In the Idaho effort, a few self-appointed government officials and private-sector collaborators from the logging industry and one environmental group sought to bring grizzly bears back to this ecosystem by playing a secretive “inside game” that excluded many people who would have been affected.

Without a solid base of support, the proposal floundered when regressive regional politicians became incensed. The resulting misinformation and local opposition to grizzlies in central Idaho have not yet been overcome.

Need to Do the Job Right

But those involved in North Cascades grizzly bear recovery efforts need to do more than gold-star public education and outreach. The ESA’s requirement to use the best available science is one of the reasons the Act has been so successful. Recovery of grizzlies in the North Cascades should move forward, but to improve prospects of success, the FWS needs to upgrade its proposed science and management protocols. If restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades is worth doing, it is worth doing right.

First and foremost, the FWS should put more emphasis on managing and even closing roads on public lands. The science is unequivocal regarding the link between dead bears and poachers taking advantage of back-country roads. In the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, science-based restrictions on road access allowed grizzlies to recolonize areas where they had been locally extirpated. The same has been true in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. Managers in the North Cascades should learn these hard-fought and -won lessons.

The FWS should also do more to deal with potential poaching. Every landscape has its bad actors and would-be poachers. In the North Cascades, recovering grizzly bears means keeping as many alive as possible. That means ensuring effective law enforcement.

Related to both roads and poachers, the FWS should do a better job of evaluating where grizzlies are likely to get into trouble, which is a logical result of superimposing attractive habitats with human infrastructure and local attitudes. With limited resources, managers need to anticipate where to efficiently concentrate their efforts.

Finally, long-term isolation of North Cascades grizzlies guarantees continued risk for this population, regardless of eventual population sizes. Isolated populations are always more vulnerable to environmental change and genetic impoverishment. As difficult as it may be politically and logistically, existing connections to adjacent wildlands in Canada and beyond need to be maintained and expanded, even eastward towards grizzly bear populations in the Northern Rockies.

These pragmatic and doable improvements would all facilitate grizzly bear recovery.

The FWS is right to move forward with restoring grizzlies in some of Washington’s wildest country. If we succeed, we will have proven that we can undo at least some of the harm perpetrated by our European ancestors; that we have evolved morally and spiritually beyond the sordid days of Manifest Destiny. Making this ecosystem more whole might even help heal that place in our hearts that wants—even needs—to be generous, unfettered, and free.

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