Issues, North Cascades

Should we restore grizzlies to the North Cascades?

Last week, I fought Friday traffic and headed to the Renton Community Center for an open house on proposals to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades. The National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are working together on this issue, and both agencies, along with the Forest Service and other government offices, had staff on hand at the open house to explain the different options.

The public comment period is open until March 14, and I urge you to submit your thoughts. First, though, a brief timeline.

  • 1975: USFWS designates grizzlies as an endangered species. The agency establishes four recovery zones in Montana and Wyoming.
  • 1993: USFWS adds the North Cascades ecosystem, an area encompassing 10,000 square miles, as a recovery zone.
  • 1996: Near Glacier Peak, a bear biologist observes what turns out to be the most recent verified grizzly sighting in the North Cascades.
  • 1997: USFWS adds a North Cascades chapter to the national grizzly recovery plan.
  • 2014: The National Park Service announces it will provide funding for an Environmental Impact Statement on grizzly restoration and work with USFWS to complete it
  • 2017: NPS and USFWS publish the draft EIS in January. The agencies hold eight open houses and four webinars in February and accept comments until March 14.

Appropriately, the Park Service and USFWS held most of the open houses in towns adjacent to the recovery zone. Renton was the exception. About 20 minutes southeast of Seattle, it is convenient to both Seattleites and residents of Bellevue and other east side communities.

The draft EIS set out four alternatives, all of which have the stated goal of restoring the population to 200 bears. But they would achieve that goal in different ways.

Alternative A. Do nothing. Manage the area as it is being managed and hope the bears show up.

Alternative B. Do a little. Release up to 10 bears during the first two years, then monitor them for at least two more years. In the fourth year, wildlife managers would decide whether to add more bears, or move to option 3. Population of 200 would be reached in 60-100 years.

Alternative C. Do a little more. Release up to 25 bears over 5-10 years, then monitor them. Population of 200 reached in 60-100 years.

Alternative D. Grizzly free-for-all (not really). Release a “sufficient number” of bears that the population will reach 200 in about 25 years.

According to the draft EIS, all the options include guidelines for capture, release, and monitoring practices; human-bear conflicts; public education; and habitat management.

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park
Grizzly bear, Yellowstone National Park (National Park Service photo)

Under any of the alternatives, the North Cascade grizzly population could be designated as “experimental,” a status that can be granted under the Endangered Species Act, section 10(j). As I understand it, this would provide federal wildlife managers more flexibility in how they manage the bears, with an eye toward reducing conflicts with humans and other land uses. Managers could, for example, recapture bears that have moved outside the targeted recovery zone and bring them back into it. They could remove nuisance bears using lethal or non-lethal methods depending on the situation. They could capture bears for research and monitoring. They could set up a permit system wherein private landowners would be allowed to “harass, haze, or kill” bears that attack livestock on private lands when other methods of discouraging the bears have failed.

NPS, USFWS, and the Forest Service (which manages much of the North Cascades ecosystem) would establish an experimental population boundary, taking into account future management of the bears and how they might move over time. The core region of this boundary would likely be the same as the current North Cascades Ecosystem, not including towns and cities inside the boundary. As bears move out of the core area, wildlife managers would apply the flexibility provided by the experimental population designation to minimize bear-human and bear-livestock conflicts.

I’m just going to pause here and say that I generally believe government exists to care for its citizens, I recognize the importance of conducting these impact studies, and I believe grizzly restoration is an important issue. That said, it would sure be nice if these reports could be written using terminology and phrasing ordinary folks might have a chance of understanding. I get that the open houses are designed in part to fulfill that need, but in reality, most folks aren’t going to be able to get to an open house or log in to a webinar. Even the executive summary on this EIS is fairly impenetrable. No wonder people sometimes feel government is not on their side.

All right, back to the issue at hand. After reading the EIS, I had a few questions.

First, how does the probability of success factor into each alternative? Well, it turns out that’s not really part of the equation. The EIS alternatives simply offer different options and seek public input to help the federal agencies decide what to do. If public input favors doing nothing, that might be what is done. But if the majority of people who submit comments favor the grizzly free-for-all option, we might see that implemented. The feds are going to do something about North Cascades grizzlies, even if it means doing nothing.

Second, what is the probability of success for each alternative? I knew part of the answer: if the do-nothing alternative is selected, grizzlies will soon be extirpated (locally extinct) from the North Cascades if they aren’t already. But what about the other options? Looking at the “do a little” alternative, I wondered whether it could even work.

Wayne Kasworm of the USFWS, who works on grizzly restoration in the Cabinet-Yaak Range in northwestern Montana, told me that 19 grizzlies have been translocated to that recovery area since 1990 (that’s 19 bears in 26 years, or a bear every 16 months or so). The total population there is now estimated at 50 bears, which means they are finding each other and reproducing. The Cabinet-Yaak, like the North Cascades, was estimated to have a total population of five to 10 bears before recovery efforts began.

That seems to bode well for the North Cascades effort. However, the Cabinet-Yaak recovery zone is 2,600 square miles, one-quarter the size of the North Cascades recovery zone. So we may need to bring more bears into the North Cascades to have a chance of succeeding, which suggests the “do a little more” alternative might have a better chance of success.

Finally, I wondered about the proposed translocation areas. One pretty much covers the Picket Range in the northern unit of North Cascades National Park. It’s some of the wildest, most remote country in the lower 48, but I don’t think it was ideal grizzly habitat. Much of the area is alpine rock and ice, shot through with some river valleys. It seems to me grizzlies might prefer habitat similar to what they experience in Wyoming and Montana, more rolling hills and open areas. In other words, more like the Pasayten Wilderness, which is another proposed translocation area, and right on the edge of livestock grazing territory. See where this is going? At any rate, a Forest Service representative told me the proposed translocation areas were not final, and that depending on the alternative selected, one or more might not be used.

vintage Park Service bear warning poster
Images like this 1959 poster don’t help the grizzly’s reputation. On the other hand, people can be astonishingly stupid about interacting with wildlife, so maybe scarier is more effective. (National Park Service poster)

Judging by the crowd at Renton — well over 100 by the time I left at 6:30 pm — many people feel strongly about grizzlies. I overheard one man say that grizzlies were ferocious predators who hunt humans, an assertion that is patently untrue. Eighty percent of a grizzly’s diet is vegetation, and insects and small animals comprise most of the remaining 20 percent. Grizzlies are not going to be dropped into the North Cascades and fan out looking for inattentive hikers to chomp on. Like black bears, they’d prefer to avoid us. But if we get between a mother bear and her cubs, surprise a bear, or get too close to a carcass they are saving to eat later, they will react and it probably won’t go well for us. That’s nature.

Personally, I’m more creeped out by cougars, although I hasten to point out that they are even less likely to attack humans. They’re just so stealthy, and I once read that although most hikers in the Pacific Northwest will never see a cougar, they will almost certainly have been seen by one. Of course that little gem has stayed with me. Plus, I’m not really a cat person.

Personal quirks aside, I would like to see grizzlies restored to the North Cascades, in part because I think co-existing with grizzlies allows us to experience true wildness.

Still, the media-influenced, true-wildlife-story-reading, less-outdoors-confident part of me thinks maybe a slower restoration would be wiser. Let’s give everyone time and space to get used to grizzlies being back among us.

Another part of me thinks we should be more aggressive, because we’re at risk of losing something uniquely American, that quality of can-do self-sufficiency and brazen courage that spurred westward expansion and settlement (while acknowledging that the application of this quality tragically devastated peoples and cultures that thrived here long before we newcomers barged in).

Do we really want the wilderness to be sanitized by its lack of big, dangerous animals? Or is the fact that grizzlies already depend on us for their survival itself a reason to not even try to restore them, because it feels like hubris for us to decide their fate?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know, however, that I will be commenting on the EIS. You can, too. Just click here.

The project website explains public comments are used to evaluate “the draft EIS’ adequacy in addressing the purpose, need, and objectives, range of alternatives considered, environmental issues of concern and the sufficiency of the environmental impact analysis.” (This is a good example of what I mentioned earlier about impenetrable language, actually.) In other words, did the EIS do its job analyzing the environmental impact of the proposed alternatives?

One of the four alternatives will be selected. The North Cascades are a designated recovery zone, so recovery will be pursued. If you never want to see grizzlies in the North Cascades, alternative A is probably your best bet. If you do want to see them roaming the meadows and mountains, one of the other three options is for you. I’ll be commenting in favor of the incremental restoration proposed in alternative C, partly because the North Cascades ecosystem is so big it seems smart to start with more bears, to give them a better chance of finding good territory and each other. Which will you choose?

3 thoughts on “Should we restore grizzlies to the North Cascades?

  1. Neither the NPS nor USFWS have a preferred option, according to the draft EIS. I think it’s such a controversial and high-stakes issue, the agencies are waiting to see how public comment shakes out.

    1. Interesting that they didn’t select one as the preferred. Thanks for publicizing this issue; I’ll be submitting some brief comments in favor of more grizzlies, quickly.

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