By Jeffrey Rindskopf
In Washington’s North Cascades ecosystem, there are sagebrush valleys where grizzly bears can feed in spring, alpine meadows where they can forage for berries in late summer, and steep granite mountainsides where they can den for the winter.
“There’s a huge swath of land that’s very rugged and tough to access, which is perfect for grizzly bears,” says Jenni Minier, the grizzly outreach coordinator for advocacy group Conservation Northwest.
— Conservation NW (@ConservationNW) June 7, 2016
The 6.5 million acre area in north central Washington is one of six designated grizzly recovery zones in the contiguous US. It can support an estimated population of 200 or more grizzlies. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates the North Cascades grizzly population is now less than 20.
Grizzly bears have been a part of the ecosystem for more than 20,000 years, but their long regional history may be nearing its end unless something is done.
What that something is depends on the findings of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) coordinated by the National Park Service (NPS) and USFWS with cooperation from the US Forest Service (USFS) and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). The first draft of the EIS is expected later this year and the final decision in summer 2017.
The most direct action the EIS may recommend—the one that Minier and her colleagues at Conservation NW are hoping for—is a process called grizzly bear augmentation, wherein healthy bears, usually female, are taken from an ecosystem and transplanted into a new one to help bolster the population.
“I think the numbers are too low for the bears to recover on their own,” says Bill Gaines, a research scientist who has been using DNA hair snares and remote cameras to study grizzly movement in the North Cascades. “Even if we consider the grizzly bears in British Columbia, the numbers are still too small and will require a helping hand from us humans to not go extinct.”
If Gaines is correct, augmentation may be the only way to reverse the damage caused to Washington’s grizzlies by fur trappers in the early-to-mid 1800s, when nearly 3800 grizzly hides were shipped from the area in one 25-year period.
Due to difficulty in finding new mates, slow reproductive rates and high mortality rates in cubs, the surviving grizzly population has continued to shrink despite careful management in recent decades by the state and federal agencies in charge of the recovery zone.
“What we’ve witnessed for the past few decades is the general decline and disappearance of grizzlies, not a recovering or growing population,” says Jack Oelfke, an NPS worker in the North Cascades closely involved in drafting the EIS.
Grizzly bear augmentation would be controversial but not without precedent. The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwestern Montana began its own process of grizzly augmentation in 1990, and has since received 19 bears taken from the nearby Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. DNA tests show that the once-vanishing grizzly population in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem is now as high as 45 bears—a remarkable comeback, though tarnished somewhat by the 48 grizzlies that have been killed in the area by humans since 1982.
For the most part, the North Cascades habitat lacks the extensive roadways and difficult travel linkages that caused many of those deaths, affording grizzlies the large home ranges they need to survive and reproduce. Grizzlies can even improve their ecosystem, excavating meadows and spreading seeds or displacing elk and allowing habitats to recover from heavy grazing.
“Restoring grizzly bears back into the ecosystem they once inhabited would be returning a missing piece of the ecosystem, a missing piece of biodiversity that long existed here,” says Oelfke.
In 2015, the agencies drafting the EIS sought feedback from communities around the recovery zone about grizzly restoration. Despite some opposition, primarily from ranchers concerned about depredation of livestock, supporters of restoration outweighed opponents by five to one.
If the EIS does recommend augmentation in the North Cascades, other species will have to adapt in order to coexist with the grizzlies, including the humans who live and recreate in the area. Minier, as Conservation NW’s grizzly outreach coordinator, would take an active role in educating residents and visitors to the North Cascades about the realities of coexisting with the bears.
“If you haven’t lived with grizzly bears in a long time, like we haven’t, changing your habits in the backcountry or your ranching habits is tough,” she says.
Education won’t happen overnight, but neither will the restoration process. Even with augmentation, it could take the better part of a century to see measurable growth for such a small population. Gaines believes grizzly restoration should proceed slowly and depends largely on the public accepting the recovery actions and taking responsibility in the backcountry. Still, he hopes to see results in his lifetime.
“I hope that one day I can go for a backpack with my daughter into one of those remote valleys,” he says. “We can sit together on the edge of one of those spectacular alpine meadows, and through our binoculars, watch a grizzly bear foraging in a berry patch. That would make all those years of effort worthwhile.”