Opponents to reintroduction of the grizzly bear argue that it’s an “apex species” and so a threat to humans. They ignore the fact that humans are the apex species that has eliminated ursus horribilis from 95 percent of its onetime habitat in the lower 48 states. A grizzly bear may decorate California’s state flag, but the last grizz in the Golden Bear State was shot a century ago.
The National Park Service has just released a 199-page environmental impact statement recommending that grizzlies be reintroduced to the North Cascades, where the last confirmed siting was south of Glacier Peak in 1996. The last grizzly kill was up Fisher Creek in 1964, four years before creation of the North Cascades National Park complex. Awkwardly, a grizzly just apparently killed two campers in Canada’s Banff National Park.
“The U.S. and Canadian portions of the greater North Cascades Ecosystem constitute a large block of contiguous habitat that spans the international border but is isolated from grizzly bear populations in other parts of the two countries,” the NPS concluded. It found the expanse of wildlands has a “carrying capacity” of 280 bears but aims to initially relocate and sustain a population of 25 grizzlies, letting it build naturally.
Two growing populations of grizzlies are currently found in the lower 48, in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and in the Northern Rockies around Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Isolated, endangered populations hang on in the Cabinet Mountains of Montana. The southern Selkirk Mountains of northeast Washington and northern Idaho see an occasional “transient” grizzly crossing from British Columbia. A “transient” is a helluva thing to call a grizzly in its historic habitat.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., started growling the moment the NPS’ EIS was released. “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,” Newhouse declared in a statement. “The introduction of grizzlies into the North Cascades would be devastating for our North Central Washington communities.”
He’s not just making a bluff, having in the past inserted budget language that forbids using federal dollars to reintroduce grizzlies in the Cascades. Surprisingly, the Trump administration’s controversial Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke showed up in 2018 at park headquarters in Sedro Woolley to declare his support for grizzly recovery. Newhouse responded by supporting a meeting to show resistance in Okanogan County.
The Trump administration deep-sixed its recovery study, but not before 150,000-plus public responses were tallied, a top-heavy majority giving thumbs up to bringing grizzlies back to the North Cascades. Newhouse blames the numbers on “environmental activists in California.” An argument can be made, however, that the apex predators he really fears are MAGA Republicans Clint Didier and Loren Culp, who have opposed Newhouse in past elections.
Support for recovery comes from greens, Native American tribes, and some – but not all – recreationists. “Many rural residents living in the North Cascades recognize that they are in grizzly bear habitat: They recognize that as a native species, grizzlies were here before them and [we] should make room for them to return,” said Jasmine Minbashian, executive director of the Methow Valley Citizens Council. Scott Schuyler, policy director of the Upper Skagit Tribe, added: “The Upper Skagit successfully coexisted with grizzly bears for thousands of years and we should once more.”
Coexistence with apex predators is not always peaceful. After wolves moved back into the Methow Valley, two canis lupus were shot and killed. The local perpetrators were caught (and prosecuted) when blood leaked from pelts they were shipping to British Columbia. A breeding female wolf was illegally shot up the west fork of the Teanaway River near Cle Elum.
In the northern Rockies, however, south of Glacier National Park, rancher Karl Rappold coexists with grizzlies on the 7,000-acre ranch founded by his grandfather 151 years ago. Rappold explained to me, on a visit, that he keeps livestock clear of their migration routes. He’s never experienced problems even with a 1,000-pound bear that regularly drops by from the adjoining Bob Marshall Wilderness.
A local biologist in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range collects roadkill deer and livestock carcasses and deposits them as grizzly food well away from where cattle are grazing. Boone & Crockett has purchased a 6,000-acre ranch to show that bears and cattle can coexist. The ranch is located where the Great Plains meet the Rockies.
The National Park Service says it will work to “improve social tolerance” of grizzlies in the North Cascades, as well as “human safety.” The relocation, initially accomplished by helicopter, will provide for “deterrence, preemptive relocation to prevent conflicts, and written authorization for conditioned lethal take (kill) if necessary.” Any bruin becoming a “problem bear” will do so at its own peril.
The NPS and Parks Canada have shown ingenuity in preventing human-bear conflict. Our Park Service warns hikers to steer clear of popular Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park during the fall when grizzlies seek out white-bark pine nuts, a key food source. The NPS temporarily restricted tent camping this summer at popular Many Glacier Campground due to a problem bear.
Odaray Prospect, in Yoho National Park, is one of North America’s epic mountain viewpoints. Yet, it’s also on a route used by grizzlies migrating between two valleys. Parks Canada closes the trail much of the year. When open, only two parties a day are permitted with a minimum number of hikers. All to avoid contact.
A big section in the south end of Banff National Park is a grizzly zone. Our party was staying just over the boundary in B.C.’s Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park. Two in the group, Aaron Pailthorp and John Zilavy had a safe-distance grizzly experience, as related by John: “We followed tracks in fresh snow before rounding a corner and seeing it 100 yards ahead. It looked at us and kept moving.”
A scarier experience occurred last month on the popular Consolation Lakes trail near Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies. A sow grizzly and near-adult cub appeared on the trail about 30 yards behind a guided party. The hikers were told not to run and slowly, nervously and noisily walked toward the parking lot. The bears were just using the trail, which they followed for a while and veered off without incident.
Unlike Dan Newhouse, the hikers did not scare easily. Nor did my friend Rick McGuire when bluff-charged by a young grizzly near Telegraph Creek on the Stikine River. He stood his ground, though he did look a little pale returning to camp along the river.
Hiking up to Earl Grey Pass in the B.C.’s Purcell Mountains, a friend and I heard thrashing and what sounded like grunts above trail in a brushy meadow. We made a lot of noise, even borrowed the famous Mohammed Ali (nee Cassius Clay) taunt when he was about to fight Sonny Liston: “I’m gonna whump you, you big ugly bear.” With much thrashing, the bear – a glimpse of brown suggested grizzly – headed up the slope.
The Park Services proposes to introduce three to seven bears a year to the North Cascades over the period of a decade, to areas with “no confirmed evidence of a grizzly bear presence.” Careful monitoring is promised. Already at Olympic National Park, “improved social tolerance” of black bears has meant supplying bear-proof food containers to folks getting backcountry camping permits at park HQ in Port Angeles.
I once watched with amusement as ranger Jason Bausher gave containers and brief safety instructions to those obtaining permits. The chuckling stopped when friend David Lawsky and I hiked into the remote Gwillim Lakes in B.C.’s Valhalla Provincial Park. Big tracks in the mud suggested a big bear. We hastily made use of a bear-proof bin in the backcountry camp.
The North Cascades National Park Complex, Glacier Peak, Mt. Baker and Pasayten Wilderness Areas, plus B.C.’s adjoining Manning, Skagit Valley and Cathedral Provincial Parks total more than 2 million contiguous acres of potential grizzly habitat. Only S.R. 20 crosses these wildlands, with B.C.’s southern trans-provincial highway dipping into Manning Park. Our national park is almost entirely wild and received just 30,154 visitors in 2022.
The public is invited to comment on the Park Service EIS, the deadline being November 13. Be sure to say you are opining on Draft Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan/Environmental Impact Statement-North Cascade Ecosystem. Identify yourself as a Washington resident, so as not to be relocated by Congressman Newhouse.
Go to http://parkplanning-nps.gov Click on the link: “Plans/Documents Open for Comment.” Find the grizzly EIS. Or send comments to North Cascades National Park, 810 State Route 20, Sedro Woolley, Washington 98284.
Remember, even if you are an “environmental activist in California,” we’re talking about public lands of which you are the owner.