Commentary: North Cascades needs a healthy grizzly bear community

By Joe Scott, Mark Heckert and Craig Romano

Grizzly bears roamed the mountains that became the North Cascades National Park for thousands of years. Yet by the mid-20th century, unregulated hunting and habitat loss nearly obliterated them. Today, fewer than 10 are believed to remain in the North Cascades.

The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are accepting comments on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement to guide restoration of the endangered grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades.

This is exciting news and an historic conservation opportunity for our region.

Scientists agree that the current population numbers too few to recover naturally, given the grizzlies’ slow reproductive rate and the lack of healthy nearby grizzly populations to recolonize the North Cascades. The impact statement contains four recovery options, three of which include moving a small number of bears into this wild corner of the Pacific Northwest.

As Washingtonians who have long hiked, camped, hunted and worked in the North Cascades, we support transplanting grizzlies into the North Cascades. And, we’re not alone. Recent polls show the majority of Washingtonians strongly support grizzly restoration. Grizzly bears are magnificent, intelligent, charismatic animals. They energize the landscape.

However, we know some folks are concerned about relocating bears here from elsewhere. Some fear for their safety in the wilderness. Some fear losing access to favorite placesor the potential impacts to rural livelihoods; or they misunderstand how such a process works. Sometimes, it’s a simple fear of change.

These concerns can be addressed with accurate information: about grizzly bear ecology and behavior; working and recreating safely in bear country; how grizzly bears benefit local economies and enrich wild places; and what they mean for native cultures. Understanding helps us place apprehension in perspective.

At nearly 10,000 square miles, much of it rugged backcountry wilderness, the North Cascades is one of the wildest places remaining in the lower 48 states. It’s big and wild enough for both people and grizzly bears to thrive.

Wildlife biologists have been successfully transplanting grizzlies into northwest Montana’s Cabinet Mountains for 27 years under a transparent public process. They’re careful to select young bears with spotless human conflict records. The same would be true in the North Cascades. And, millions of people recreate in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks amid nearly 2,000 grizzly bears.

As a designated “Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone,” the North Cascades is already managed as if it housed a viable grizzly population. So aside from some potential temporary trail closures from food-driven grizzly presence, government managers anticipate no significant changes in access to our public lands and trails if grizzly restoration proceeds.

Recovering grizzly bears is an extremely slow process. For example, one recovery option — transplanting 25 bears over five years — means the population would still be small and vulnerable for years. It’s not recovery. It’s merely re-establishing grizzly reproduction in the system. Scientists estimate it would take 60 to 100 years to reach the goal of 200 bears. But it’s a start and an opportunity and privilege we can be proud of.

Grizzly bears have adapted and persisted against great odds. Their adaptation to a human-dominated world has given us time to see wilderness in a different light, that it is the sum of its myriad parts. The removal of one of those parts not only greatly diminishes the ecological function of wilderness but also its richness, complexity and its capacity to stir us and awaken our senses.

When you’re in grizzly country all of your senses are heightened. You may never see one, but knowing that they are there validates that you are traveling across hallowed grounds, a landscape retaining one of its wildest components; and a shrinking part of our natural heritage.

Fifty years ago grizzly bears were reduced to a couple hundred animals in four states, where 50,000 once roamed nearly everywhere west of the Mississippi. With legal protections they’ve rebounded nicely in Yellowstone and Glacier. We have an incredible opportunity to contribute to that rare legacy here in Washington’s North Cascades.

Joe Scott has worked on grizzly bear conservation in for more than two decades. He is the International Programs director for Conservation Northwest. Mark Heckert owns an environmental consulting business and is a hunter and angler who has served on the board of several sportsmen’s organizations. Craig Romano is a hiker, runner, paddler and cyclist who has written or co-authored 17 guidebooks on the Pacific Northwest.

For more information and to comment on the plans to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades go to www.nps.gov/noca/grizzly.htm. Comment deadline is March 14.

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