Go Further So Bears Can Go Farther

Plans are afoot to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem. The draft plan includes four alternatives. Only one (Alternative A) takes no action. The others, through various strategies, all aim to restore a self sustaining population of bears in the ecosystem, an effort I support. Grizzlies should be in North Cascades, but that can’t be the end game. We need to go further to allow wildlife to go father.

The story of the grizzly bear is well documented. Like bison, grizzlies suffered immensely from westward American expansion. Once found from California to Missouri and Alaska to Mexico, this iconic species is now restricted to Alaska, western Canada, and a few isolated pockets in the Lower 48.

The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species in the Lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. At the time, grizzlies were known or thought to exist in only four states. Since then, its range has not expanded substantially, but the most famous grizzly population in Yellowstone National Park has grown to over 700 individuals, at or near the Yellowstone ecosystem’s carrying capacity, and the Northern Continental Divide population, centered around Glacier National Park in Montana, is also doing well with over 1000 animals.

Elsewhere in the Lower 48, grizzly bears remain rare or non-existent. The Selkirk ecosystem, in northwest Washington and adjacent British Columbia, harbors only 80 grizzly bears. The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwest Montana and northern Idaho has about 50. No grizzly bears are known from the Bitterroot ecosystem in central Idaho, nor in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado where they were rumored to exist. They are extinct in Mexico.

Grizzly bears aren’t spreading far and wide, despite a high level of protection since the 1970s. They are slow to reproduce, need isolation from people, and roam over large areas of undeveloped habitat. They maintain a foothold only where they weren’t extirpated and where humans tolerate them.

In 1982, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the North Cascades ecosystem as a recovery zone for grizzlies in the Lower 48. The ecosystem includes over six million acres stretching from extreme southwest British Columbia to Cle Elum and the Interstate 90 corridor in Washington. The core of the ecosystem is a 2.6 million acre federal wilderness complex. The wilderness areas encompass most of North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and a significant portion of the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie national forests.

Map of North Cascades area showing public land and land management agencies. Black line outlines boundary of the ecosystem.

The North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington. (From the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, pg. 2).

A handful of grizzly bears persist in the British Columbia portion of the ecosystem, but none are known in Washington. The last verified sighting of a grizzly bear in this area of Washington was in 1996. The last time a female with cubs was seen was 1991. (A possible sighting in 2010 was likely a black bear.) According to the restoration plan, it is unlikely that the North Cascades area contains a viable grizzly bear population and grizzlies are at risk of local extinction in this ecosystem if no measures are taken to introduce more bears.

Mountain valley scene. Steep walled mountains with red-berried shrub in foreground.

Many places in the North Cascades ecosystem, like the upper Stehekin River valley, provide excellent habitat for grizzly bears.

I believe it is worthwhile to make an effort to prevent the extirpation of grizzlies in the North Cascades ecosystem, even though these bears aren’t keystones like salmon or sea otters. The bears may not create substantial changes in the area, but they will have many effects. Grizzly bears are an umbrella species. If we protect habitat for and maintain healthy populations of grizzly bears, then that large core of habitat is protected for the vast majority of other species in the area.

For grizzly bears and other large carnivores, like wolves, to regain their full potential as umbrella species, we need to do more than tolerate their existence in a few isolated areas. This is where the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan falls short. The plan aims to restore a population, not create connectivity with others. For grizzly bears to remain truly viable and self sustaining, their populations need connectivity.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is probably the most famous example of this concept. It’s an effort to protect a corridor of habitat from Yellowstone National Park north through the Rocky Mountains into the Yukon Territory. It would not only provide habitat for bears, but wolves, wolverines, elk, deer, moose, and many, many other animals and plants. It would provide animals with habitat corridors so they could migrate and shift their range as conditions dictate.

Perhaps we need to provide animals and plants on the west coast of North America with a similar corridor, one stretching from Alaska and British Columbia to Baja California. The current hodgepodge of national forests and parks along the Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada could provide the core. To achieve continuity between ecosystems, it would only be a (not so) simple matter of connecting those pieces together in ways to adhere habitats. (I also dream about similar conservation corridors across North America—the Appalachians, a bison commons on the high plains, and Florida among others.)

I’m not sure I will include a vision for the British Columbia to Baja corridor in any comments I might submit on the draft grizzly bear restoration plan. I already know the response: “This is outside the scope of the restoration plan.” The response is completely legit. The lead agencies for the restoration plan, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have no authority to create such an entity. It’ll need legislation, funding, time, and the strong support of citizens and non-government organizations to be successful.

When we have an opportunity to rewild a landscape, we should. When we have an opportunity to give a little back to wildlife, we should. But, we can do better than simply restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades. Earth’s systems don’t work in isolation. We know enough now to build resiliency into our efforts to protect wild lands and wildlife. We can provide grizzly bears with the habitat to roam into Oregon, California, and other parts of the West again. We can give the ecosystems more room to be resilient. Our goal shouldn’t be to simply have bears in a few isolated areas, but provide continuous habitat so bears can survive future changes without us. That’s how we know we’ve gone far enough.

You can submit comments on the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan through April 28, 2017.

11 thoughts on “Go Further So Bears Can Go Farther

  1. Agreed! Grizzly bears (and wolves) are beautiful animals which provide positive impacts on ecosystems. They should be protected and allowed to thrive


  2. Are the grizzlies that you refer to British Columbia the ones found in the Great Bear Rainforest? Or are grizzlies found somewhere else in BC?

    I think that while we focus on species preservation and re-population, I think you hit the nail on the head, that perhaps as important, if not more important is habitat protection, expansion and/or growth. We can protect and save species in controlled environments as much as we want, but what’s the point if we don’t allow them to roam free and expand naturally? The only way to do that is to restore, regrow or repopulate areas where these species can thrive and expand. After all, setting animals to roam in an area where they have a limited space in which to live their lives normally doesn’t really do that much to expand the species as a whole since they are then limited. As you mentioned, certain areas can only hold a certain number of animals of a particular species and in order to properly mate, and raise young and grow the population, many of these larger animals, that tend to live solitary lives, such as bears, need space. it’s like the plight of the giant panda. A bamboo forest can only support so many pandas, without providing corridors of travel for pandas between one bamboo forest to the next where they can search out mates and raise young and patrol territory, then the species itself will never grow and expand.


  3. This is a powerful argument for expanding the focus of grizzly reintroduction/restoration geographically. I was active in the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) back when the Y2Y initiative began. One of the GYC’s learned associates, who left for Oregon about 15 years ago, was fond of saying “if you love wilderness, live in town”. At the time, one of the largest perceived threats to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was believed to be unchecked rural and suburban sprawl. This has led, over time, to a shift in thinking regarding large tracts of land in private hands, particularly farms and ranches. Thankfully, organizations like The Nature Conservancy, have stepped up to either purchase outright, or at least buy up the development rights to many of the large tracts that come on the market or are owned by conservation-minded people. For anyone interested in seeing a poignant argument for the notion of protecting wilderness by not living in it, I submit this link: https://www.good.is/articles/if-you-love-nature-live-in-the-city

    The Craighead Institute has been doing some excellent work with owners of large tracts of land in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and nearby. They have brokered/negotiated some groundbreaking deals with land owners to preserve safe habitat and maintain/restore wildlife corridors. The predicate to negotiations is the application of powerful data tools that they developed, which can provide meaningful statistics, which when converted to maps, tell a compelling story. Many Montana ranchers are receptive to the conservation ideas being advanced, once they are brought into the loop.

    The larger danger is posed by the subdivision of large tracts of undeveloped land into small residential lots, large scale clear-cutting of forests, and the rampant development that accompanies certain types of recreational expansion. The best example of the danger unchecked ski area development presents is what happened to the Vail Valley in Colorado. Once the ski area was established, and grew to become one of North America’s most renowned ski resorts, real estate values shot through the roof, as condos and single family homes peppered the adjacent hillsides and valley bottoms. Golf courses obliterated crucial winter range for elk herds that have suffered mightily. I have enough background/knowledge of the commercial real estate and investment business to understand that one of the mechanisms that draws high end developers to build ski areas and golf courses is the profit incentive inherent in marketing the adjacent real estate for both commercial and residential use.


    • In Stehekin, most of the best overwinter habitat for deer and elk is occupied by people like me. That seems to be the case in much of the West. Near Yellowstone, I recall, summer habitat was abundant for large animals like bison and elk, but there’s far less room for those animals at lower elevations in the winter. As you probably know, the whole reason Yellowstone’s bison are culled is because of intolerance and fear of brucellosis in Montana. The bison have almost no suitable habitat outside the park in the winter where they don’t run into people, buildings, or places that raise cattle. It’s had me consider whether future development and zoning needs to incorporate overwintering space for wildlife.


  4. Thanks for this. A viable grizzly population needs to be reestablished in the North Cascades simply because the bears belong there. And we need to do it because we caused their (near) absence to begin with. Grizzlies may not be keystone species, but the thing is that we know too little to predict what will happen when they are reintroduced. No one realized what would result from the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. This may not be as far reaching, but it will still have an impact. For example, I imagine that grizzlies aid in seed dispersal and some of those plants may have suffered in their absence.

    Do you know where the bears would come from? Also, bears rely on learning about good food resources from their mothers. Is there a way to compensate for the loss of knowledge when you move bears?

    I had not heard of the Y2Y initiative. That is wonderful. As are the efforts Frank describes to buy up land and at least put conservation easements on it. “Compelling evidence suggests that not only are Yellowstone grizzly populations moving northward, but also that northern populations are making their way southward. Currently, northern and southern grizzly populations are within 100 miles (160 km) of each other in west central Montana—the closest they have been in over 100 years.” That right there makes me cry in the same way that learning that the chinook had moved up into the Elwha watershed above Glines Canyon a mere two months after the dam came down. For 100 years they have both been struggling to survive. It’s time we gave them the opportunity to thrive.

    You are entirely correct that this is the final goal. But every journey begins with an initial step and a viable grizzly population in the North Cascades would be a good first step.


    • I’m not sure there is a way to adequately compensate for the bears’ loss of knowledge about their former home range. According to the draft restoration plan, “grizzly bears would be captured from source populations in northwestern Montana and/or south-central British Columbia” (p. iii). The plan identifies south central BC and northwest MT as a source for bears because those areas include similar habitats, plant communities, and food sources compared to North Cascades. The bears will recognize what to eat here. They’ll just need to wander a bit to find it. However, I suspect they’ll be able to recognize habitat with adequate food fairly easily. That’s probably an instinct they carry with them. After all, subadult bears, especially subadult males, often disperse far from their mothers’ home ranges into areas they’ve never visited. Subadult bears will be the primary age class released under Alternative B and C from the restoration plan. Since subadulthood is a time of natural dispersal, the transition into a completely new area may not be as dramatic as it would be for a seasoned adult.


      • I am presently reading Cat Sense by anthrozoologist John Bradshaw. The research shows specific times in brain development when kittens are programed to learn certain things. (Such as being friendly with humans.) Miss a window and you are out of luck. I would expect that bear brains also have specific times when they are designed to learn specific new things. And subadulthood would be the logical time for bears to be most receptive to dispersal and learning about new food resources. So I think you are correct, especially if the plant communities and food sources are similar.

        I think it would be difficult to drop adults into new home ranges and expect them to succeed. I think they might also just head back for their old home ranges, which could be disastrous for them.


  5. Pingback: Stehekin Grizzly Bear Meeting | Wandering at Large

  6. Thanks, Ranger Mike, for this post.

    As I read it, I thought about a map that was introduced as a question at our weekly trivia game last week.
    Here it is: http://geology.com/stories/13/bear-areas/

    Your post made me realize that although this map shows WHERE bears live, it doesn’t show HOW MANY bears live in each area.

    Also, looking at the map of North Cascades and comparing it to the bear distribution map, it makes a lot of sense (to me, anyway) to look at this area as a possible region where bears might thrive. It would be logical, I think, to extend the bear distribution further south from British Columbia. And it seems like there would be some benefit to having a bear population in such relatively close proximity to the bears in northern Wyoming.

    Thanks for helping me think in a new way about that bear distribution map!


  7. Pingback: Restoring Grizzlies is not a Threat to Wilderness | Wandering at Large

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