Two brown bears look for salmon at Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska in July, 2013. Alaska’s most watched popularity contest, Fat Bear Week, allows webcam viewers to pick their favorite bears that have been fattening up for winter on salmon. Brown bears and grizzlies are from the same species, but grizzlies are considered a separate subspecies. (Mark Thiessen / Associated Press File)

Two brown bears look for salmon at Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska in July, 2013. Alaska’s most watched popularity contest, Fat Bear Week, allows webcam viewers to pick their favorite bears that have been fattening up for winter on salmon. Brown bears and grizzlies are from the same species, but grizzlies are considered a separate subspecies. (Mark Thiessen / Associated Press File)

Editorial: North Cascades need return of grizzly bears

Absent for more than a century, the apex predators are key to the North Cascades ecosystem’s health.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in Washington state’s North Cascades was near Snohomish County’s Glacier Peak in 1996. After that a bear, either a grizzly or a large black bear, was spotted in 2010 along the Sahale Arm trail in national forestland east of Darrington.

In the terminology of the National Fish and Wildlife Service, grizzlies in the North Cascades are “functionally extirpated.” Missing in action, in other words.

The grizzly — in any sense of a sustainable population — has long surpassed a century of absence in the North Cascades, save for a small population in the ecosystem’s northern reaches in British Columbia.

But after more than two decades of research, proposals, studies and public comment — with a final round of comment now being solicited — a plan to begin slowly returning Ursus arctos horriblis to Washington state’s North Cascades is nearing approval and implementation.

Grizzly bears, which may have originally numbered in the thousands in the North Cascades — and more than 50,000 throughout the West — were hunted to less than 400 in the region by the 1860s.

Elsewhere in the lower 48 states, protection and management in recent decades have allowed grizzly numbers to rebound to some 2,000 bears. In northwest Montana, over three decades, a population of fewer than 15 grizzlies grew to an estimated 55 to 60 bears. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem saw its grizzly population rebound from fewer than 150 bears in the 1970s to about 700 grizzly bears within its 9,200 square miles.

But any hopes for grizzly bears to see a sustainable population in the North Cascades would require the relocation of bears from elsewhere. A proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Parks services offers a plan to relocate three to seven bears each year over a five- to 10-year period, with the goal of establishing an initial population of 25 bears over a decade, then using management and the bears’ protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act to reach about 200 bears within 60 years to a century. Past research and the proposal’s environmental impact statement indicate the North Cascades could support about 280 grizzlies.

Why go to the effort and cost, especially considering the risks to livestock and public safety? Throughout the more than 20 years of study and discussion, considerable opposition has been raised, and remains.

“Time and again, our communities have spoken to express staunch opposition to the introduction of these apex predators, which would be detrimental to our families, wildlife and livestock alike,” U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents the state’s 4th Congressional District, said in a statement last month.

Grizzlies do kill; livestock and humans. Earlier this week, a man and woman, both experienced backcountry travelers, were killed by a grizzly bear in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. A grizzly also was blamed this July for the death of a woman in West Yellowstone, Mont. Since 2010, excluding attacks in Canada and Alaska, there have been 12 fatalities attributed to grizzly bears in the West, an average of about one a year.

Yet, drownings, vehicle accidents and falls remain the leading cause of deaths in national parks. And there’s a greater threat to life and limb in the North Cascades from climbing accidents, rock falls, avalanches and exposure than there would be with the return of a small population of grizzlies.

Regarding livestock, state and federal governments have programs in place to compensate ranchers for the loss of animals. And the reintroduction plan’s preferred alternative would require management under a Endangered Species Act provision that allows for greater flexibility in relocating and even killing problem bears following conflicts with people and further would encourage people to haze and annoy bears that approach homes and other structures.

Yet within Newhouse’s statement is the justification for the bears’ return: Grizzlies are indeed “apex predators.”

Apex predators, also known as keystone species, are an ecosystem’s top predators, essential — as omnivores, eating plants and animals as grizzlies do — for the health of the forests in which they live.

Grizzlies, as are other bears, are responsible for enriching forest soils with nitrogen, by bringing salmon carcasses from streams and rivers into the forest; for encouraging the growth and spread of plant species by distributing the seeds left behind in their scat; and for controlling deer and elk populations and keeping herds on the move, preventing overgrazing.

The reintroduction of apex predators — where they have been absent — has a record of restoring the health of ecosystems, a strengthening of what’s called a trophic cascade, the effect a predator has on the levels of the food web beneath it.

Gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, and are credited with rebalancing the elk and deer populations, allowing willow and aspen groves to rebound and stabilizing riverbanks that had been overgrazed. The healthier habitats helped sustain populations of songbirds, eagles, beavers, foxes and badgers.

The process and consideration of this plan have been drawn out over more than 20 years, and was hampered by periods of cancellation and restart during the Trump administration, until being revived last year. The research is complete and a sensible plan for implementation has been presented for a final round of public comment. It’s now time to move forward with the grizzlies’ return.

We have seen considerable efforts in recent decades to restore habitat to rebuild salmon runs and encourage a rebound in population for the Salish Sea’s Southern Resident orcas. Likewise, we are spending considerable funds to restore the health of forests and limit their destruction from disease and wildfires.

But for more than a century, an important ecosystem link has been absent.

As the impacts of climate change continue to be seen across the Pacific Northwest, from Washington’s shoreline deep into the North Cascades, those ecosystems will rely even more on their own vitality.

Without the presence of grizzly bears in the North Cascades, that ecosystem confronts those impacts without an important engineer of forest health. Grizzly bears have work to do.


To learn more and review the reintroduction plan and comment on the proposals, go to Comments are due by Nov. 13.

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