Should these bears be restored in the North Cascades?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In 1967, Washington’s last grizzly bear was shot near Fisher Creek, below its namesake peak in the North Cascade Mountains.

To look down onto this very spot is unsettling. For me, it feels similar to when a conservationist from northeastern Washington brought me to an area in Stevens County where he had been tracking wildlife in August 2014. He had been listening for wolves that day, watching for their tracks and scat, when he heard the contracted Wildlife Service’s chopper blades and then the rifle shot that killed the Huckleberry Pack’s alpha female. The crack made him jump and stopped his heart for a second or two. Looking into these fateful spots takes away the abstract. It makes these individual losses real.

Grizzlies, like wolves, once roamed the wildlands of Washington until they were eradicated by hunters and trappers (wolves were also removed by government agencies) who sold their pelts and feared competition for ungulates and other wild game, and saw the bears as a threat to personal safety and livestock. And although these fears were unfounded, grizzly bears are big and scary, they make eyes large and hearts race. (Under the Endangered Species Act in 1980, grizzly bears were listed as endangered in Washington.)

“There are not many grizzly bear encounters. It’s a rare thing,” said Dr. Chris Servheen, Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

On the evening of March 11, Servheen, along with other FWS, National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Forest Service employees, as well as those from several wildlife organizations, worked the crowd gathering in the Bellingham Central Library’s Lecture Room, sharing information and answering questions about the proposed restoration of grizzly bears in the U.S. North Cascades Ecosystem (US NCE) and the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) underway.

“The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan calls on us to fully consider the restoration of the grizzly bear in the North Cascades, and this process will ensure we solicit the public for their input before putting any plan into action,” said FWS Pacific Regional Director Robyn Thorson. “We will continue to work with our partners to make this an open and transparent process.”

The EIS will evaluate a handful of alternatives for grizzly bear recovery within the ecosystem officials identified as adequate habitat, reaching from north of I-90 to the Canadian border. The North Cascades ecosystem encompasses 9,800 square miles in the United States and another 3,800 square miles in British Columbia. The United States portion of the ecosystem includes North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The open house was attended by curious hunters and horsemen, hikers and teachers, conservationists and livestock ranchers.
About grizzly bear reintroduction efforts in the North Cascades, Bellingham backcountry horseman Mike McGlenn said, “We are worried about more government intervention and trail closures.”

When grizzly bears frequent a particular area, as while feeding on berries, “there may be possible temporary trail closures for public safety,” Anne Braaten, Bear Management Biologist for North Cascades National Park replied. Braaten emphasized the closures would only be in place when determined necessary and would not be permanent. Braaten is also quick to add that she is not judgmental about concerns.

“With the return of wolves (to Washington) cattlemen feel grizzly bears add another layer of mortality to the concerns about their livelihood,” she said.

Jim Davis, who along with Chris Morgan founded the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project (now Western Wildlife Outreach), wants those concerned with grizzly encounters to know that “it will take over 100 years for the population to recover in the North Cascades to 400 bears. In 100 years the density would be one [grizzly] bear in 25 square miles. You are simply not going to see them,” he said. “Encounters are not something to worry about.”

Some grizzlies may have already roamed back to the North Cascades. In October 2010, a hiker took a photo that was later confirmed by bear experts to be that of a grizzly bear. In 1996, a grizzly was also observed in the U.S. North Cascades Ecosystem; however, efforts in 2010 through 2012 to study hair samples caught on barbed wire for DNA identification did not confirm the presence of grizzly bears in this area. A few grizzly bears have recently been sighted in the Canadian part of the ecosystem, but no grizzly bears have been sighted in the United States portion for several years, according to FWS biologists.

Grizzly bears are omnivores, eating mostly vegetation—berries, roots, grasses—and insects—termites, ants, larvae. They are opportunistic meat eaters, scavenging winter-killed animals and other carrion and, at times, “could chase another predator off of a carcass,” Braaten said. While they may prey on elk calves and fawn, grizzlies are not efficient killers: their often two-inch-long curved front claws are designed for digging and climbing.  

Braaten noted, “A lot of research has been done [on grizzly reintroduction efforts] and we can safely co-exist with grizzly bears. People are coming from a place of fear, this is something new. But, people have the power to do fairly simple things to coexist safely with the bears.”

What benefit is there to restoring grizzly bears in the North Cascades? Simply put, biodiversity. Should a self-sustaining population of grizzlies exist in the US NCE, along with fishers—projected to recover over the next few years—and with the continued recovery of wolves, the North Cascades would become one of the few ecosystems remaining in the contiguous United States that has the full complement of carnivore species known to be native prior to European settlement, according to research from the U.S. Dept. of the Interior.

Trevor Bloom, a Masters of Science candidate at Western Washington University’s department of Biology, who had been a wildlife guide in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, recalls a time he was on foot with five clients when he came face-to-face with a grizzly. Fortunately, the bear was quick to retreat.

“These encounters make me feel alive and part of nature,” Bloom said.

Victor Garcia, an environmental science and biology teacher at Anacortes High School, brought students to the March open house in Bellingham.

“My generation has had a good party. We’re going to toss this new generation the shop keys and hand them a bag to clean it all up,” he said.

Garcia is excited these students may see grizzlies return to the North Cascades within their lifetimes. “I want them to know that the land is theirs, too,” he said.

The public is invited to comment on the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan The draft EIS can take two or more years to develop, and the current public comment period is open through March 26, 2015. To comment, see www.

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