Restoring Grizzly Bears to the North Cascades

My tattered copy of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan Chapter has been sitting on my desk since 1997, when it was approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Now after 20 years, the federal government is poised to act on the Chapter’s major recommendation and release a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will identify strategies for restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades region.

But significant political hurdles remain.  

Even though recent polls show that there is overwhelming support from Washingtonians for grizzly bear recovery in the Cascades, the “culture” of living with grizzlies has faded a little – a culture that has remained uninterrupted in places like Montana and British Columbia. This is why groups like Conservation Northwest and the National Wildlife Federation have teamed up to form the Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear coalition to bring grizzlies back to their native habitat.

Photo by Jeremy Williams River Voices Productions
Photo by Jeremy Williams River Voices Productions

For context, biologists estimate that it will take a century to reestablish a self-sustaining grizzly bear population (200 bears) in the Cascade Mountains. Adjacent grizzly populations in southern British Columbia are also endangered, so natural Cascades recolonization hasn’t occurred. Grizzly bears reproduce more slowly than any other mammal in North America, except for the muskox, so for them to reoccupy lost habitat could take generations.

Consequently, some folks are understandably fearful of the idea to restore grizzly bears. Their reasons range from personal safety concerns to misconceptions around restrictions on access to public lands to questions about economic impacts on rural communities.

To answer the question of human safety, we might look to places with hundreds of grizzly bears like Yellowstone Park and the Glacier/Bob Marshall area. Millions of people live and recreate in and around these flagship parks amidst what is now nearly a couple thousand grizzlies. Yet, incidents of grizzly bears injuring people are rare and dwarfed by other causes. Though conflicts occur, our knowledge of how to coexist with grizzly bears is simple and effective.

The tens of millions of visitors to those parks inject millions of dollars into surrounding communities. Data shows that most come to see the bears and wolves. The North Cascades is already managed as if grizzly bears are present in significant numbers. So, grizzly recovery wouldn’t affect our ability to access and hike our favorite trails or climb, hunt, fish or snowmobile, for example.   

The point is that grizzly bears matter – to the ecology and richness of the Cascades ecosystem; to our communities who want to know that our wild places are wild enough to support grizzly bears; and to ourselves as environmental stewards who care about the component parts of wild places and not just their aesthetic values. They matter to First Nations to whom the grizzly is culturally significant.

Photo by Jeremy Williams River Voices Productions
Photo by Jeremy Williams River Voices Productions

Washington’s North Cascades is one of only five grizzly bear recovery zones, and the only one outside of the Rocky Mountains. These are the only areas in which the federal government intends to reestablish the great bear, which if successful, will represent about 4% of the grizzly’s former range in the contiguous U.S.

As Aldo Leopold said, “Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven. One may never get there.”

Having a healthy and whole ecosystem with all its native wildlife is a privilege accorded to very few places in the continental U.S. today. The return of grizzly bears to the North Cascades would be an unmatched conservation triumph.

This will likely be our only chance to restore this magnificent animal to the wild Cascades. For future generations, for the bears, and for our natural heritage, the time to act is now. We are urging folks to participate in the recovery process when government holds open houses and solicits public comments in early 2017.

Help GrizzliesShow your support by becoming a Friend of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear.



joe_headshotAbout the Author: Joe Scott is the International Programs Director for Conservation Northwest. He manages CNW’s British Columbia portfolio with a particular focus on grizzly bears, mountain caribou and habitat connectivity across the Washington/BC border.