Commentary: How grizzlies and people can share North Cascades

Steps that are working elsewhere can limit conflict between people and bears as their numbers grow.

By Robb Krehbiel

They’re the “ghost bears” of the North Cascades. With fewer than 10 remaining in this vast ecosystem, some people joke that you are more likely to see Sasquatch than one of the elusive bears roaming the forested wilderness.

As the most endangered grizzly bear population in the country, the North Cascades grizzly bears are in desperate need of assistance. Plans to bring additional bears into the Cascades were drafted in 2014, but the recovery plan’s fate remained uncertain under President Trump.

After months of delay, Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently made a surprise visit to North Cascades National Park to announce a restart to the recovery planning process. This news was welcomed by Washingtonians, who overwhelmingly support grizzly restoration in the North Cascades. However, a final decision is pending. The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must now analyze various plans and options to recover this extremely small population, ensuring that grizzlies will once again roam the rugged landscape of the North Cascades.

During his visit, Zinke spoke on the prospects for restoration. “I am absolutely confident that we’re on the right path, that we can introduce the grizzly back into the ecosystem, and it will be a net positive. … I’m not going to make a pre-judgment, but I can tell you the winds are very favorable.”

Recovery of grizzlies in the North Cascades will require more than a speech. To ensure that grizzly bear recovery is a success, we need to do more than physically bring bears back to the landscape. We need to ensure that people and bears can share this land we all call home.

The Pacific Northwest is an outdoor recreationalist’s paradise. Whether it’s hiking or hunting, mountain biking or fishing, many Washingtonians escape to these forests, rivers and mountains to experience our natural heritage. But exploring these wild lands should be done with care and caution. Before heading into bear country, it’s important to know how to avoid conflicts with either grizzly or black bears.

Defenders of Wildlife has worked for more than 20 years across the grizzly bear’s range to promote coexistence tools and provide education about recreating in bear country. In Washington, we have reached out to communities through our PlaySmart campaign, providing tips for how to avoid conflicts while in bear country.

As the recovery plan for North Cascades grizzlies moves forward, there are already people who live alongside the great bear here in Washington. In the northeast corner of the state, Pend Oreille County and the Kalispel Tribe are neighbors to a small (but slowly growing) population of grizzlies in the Selkirk Mountains. To reduce human-bear conflict in the region, the county and the tribe are partnering with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to learn about bear behavior and the importance of bear spray. Defenders of Wildlife has recently expanded our electric fence cost-share program into Pend Oreille and Stevens counties, helping private landowners cover the cost and providing technical assistance to install bear-resistant electric fences around common bear attractants such as chicken coops and fruit trees.

On the Colville National Forest, U.S. Forest Service staff, with the assistance of numerous partners, have been installing food storage lockers at campgrounds so that campers can safely store their food from bears and other wildlife. The forest has a goal of installing lockers at every forest campsite over the next five years.

Pend Oreille County Public Works officials have also been working to secure their waste transfer sites. Without a landfill in the county, residents take their trash to community pickup locations, where dumpsters are later trucked to landfills. Unfortunately, trash can be a magnet for wildlife, especially bears. To keep bears out of trash and away from people, the county is working to fully fence these sites.

These projects show that Washingtonians are willing and able to share our landscape with grizzly bears. We know that there is widespread support for grizzly restoration in the North Cascades. Defenders of Wildlife will closely follow the recovery process, as we have since the beginning. In the meantime, we remain committed to working with communities to provide the tools, resources and assistance that people need to coexist with the great bear.

Robb Krehbiel is the northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife’s Seattle office.

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