Restoring Grizzlies is not a Threat to Wilderness

Wilderness Watch, a non-profit advocacy and watchdog group for the National Wilderness Preservation System, opposes active restoration of grizzly bears in the North Cascades ecosystem. While their strict adherence to wilderness values is laudable, in this case it could lead to the extirpation of grizzlies from the ecosystem. Arbitrary wilderness values are not more important than the restoration of grizzlies.

Wilderness, as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act, is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Importantly, the Wilderness Act states wilderness areas also preserve “wilderness character,” a set of values that link wilderness conditions with legislative intent. Federal land management agencies must manage wilderness so it maintains all aspects of wilderness character. Wilderness must remain untrammeled, natural, undeveloped, provide opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, and protect other features of value.

Bare mountain peak with lake below

Green view lake sits below Goode Mountain in the Stephen Mather Wilderness, North Cascades National Park.

Any ecosystem manipulation in designated wilderness will affect some of these values, especially during the effort to restore grizzlies. Specifically, the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan will temporarily trammel the land by manipulating a species’ population. Additionally, helicopters flights can impact opportunities for solitude, and tracking collars on bears will affect the wilderness’s naturalness and undeveloped characteristics. For these reasons, Wilderness Watch advocates for a natural recovery alternative, which would allow bears to return on their own and offer the greatest adherence to wilderness character and values. They state:

  • Information is lacking on the status of grizzlies on the Canadian side of the border where two moderately sized provincial parks provide some protection for the bears.
  • For dubious reasons, a natural recovery alternative was rejected for further analysis. Instead, the DEIS considers only heavy-handed management alternatives.
  • The extensive use of helicopters would continue indefinitely for monitoring bear movement and numbers. This heavy-handed management would be detrimental to Wilderness and bears alike.
  • None of the current action alternatives, involving translocating bears, are compatible with Wilderness.

However, some of these assertions are incorrect. There is a “natural recovery alternative” in the draft restoration plan. It’s the no action alternative, or Alternative A. This alternative may need further revision to achieve Wilderness Watch’s goals, but it hasn’t been rejected for further analysis or excluded. Perhaps most importantly, if Wilderness Watch’s position is adopted by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it will likely lead to the extirpation of grizzlies in the ecosystem, where only six bears are thought to remain (Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, p. 90).

Grizzly bears are not doing well in southwestern British Columbia. Adjacent populations to the north are only slightly more numerous. Fewer than 30 grizzlies are estimated to live within the Stein-Nahatlatch and Garibaldi-Pitt areas (interactive map of grizzly populations in British Columbia). Under current conditions, no grizzly population in Canada or the U.S. is likely to expand and occupy the North Cascades region (Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, p. 88-89).

Alt Text: Map of Grizzly Bear Population Status in British Columbia (Red=Extirpated, Yellow=Threatened, Green=Viable)

This map shows the current status of grizzly bear populations in British Columbia. Many areas of B.C. have healthy populations of grizzlies, but every population in southwest B.C. is either threatened or already extirpated. Red Circle is approximate area of North Cascades ecosystem.

Wilderness Watch is correct when they write, “None of the current action alternatives, involving translocating bears, are compatible with Wilderness.” In this case, helicopters and intensive management of translocated bears would impact the area’s wilderness character. The impacts may be unavoidable, but under certain conditions wilderness character can be manipulated for safety and management needs (i.e. invasive species removal). The NPS and USFWS would need to diligently consider ways to minimize impacts.

Anyone who is willing to share the ecosystem with bears and also wishes to preserve wilderness character should support Alternative B in the draft restoration plan, which proposes to introduce a small number of grizzly bears into the area, monitor them, then reevaluate whether more bears should be introduced. This offers the best compromise, in my opinion, between the no action (natural restoration) alternative and other options (alternatives C and D) that are much more heavy handed.

Wilderness and wilderness character is worth protecting. Groups like Wilderness Watch should continue to be a watchdog for designated wilderness. Yet, the effort to restore a healthy, self-sustaining population of grizzlies in North Cascades transcends arbitrary wilderness values. Bears need wild areas more than people.

I wish we could step back and let grizzly bears restore themselves. Nothing I’ve read indicates that’s a successful solution though. The North Cascades ecosystem was identified as one of six recovery zones for grizzlies in the Lower 48 partly because of its large, natural, and healthy wilderness areas. Bears can survive here, if we give them a push. I believe we can sacrifice a bit of our cultural need for an idealized, untrammeled wilderness to benefit grizzly bears. If we don’t act, if we allow grizzlies to disappear, then that would be one of the greatest trammels of all.

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

Related Posts:
Stehekin Grizzly Bear Meeting
Go Further So Bears Can Go Farther

7 thoughts on “Restoring Grizzlies is not a Threat to Wilderness

  1. Ugh. While I understand their point, the fact is that we humans have already trammeled the land by extirpating (effectively) the grizzlies, wolves and other carnivores living there. So now they want to draw an artificial date stamp in the sand and say that it should remain wilderness untouched by man in the state that it is in in 2017? Wolves might repopulate on their own, but it seems unlikely that grizzlies will. As I wrote in my comments, grizzlies might not cause trophic cascades, but a healthy population will still have a significant effect on the ecosystem.


  2. Mike, my tendency is to agree with your perspective on this issue, but the thought of low altitude helo flights is spooky, particularly if choppers were used for routine surveillance flights. Wolf watchers in Yellowstone have watched “the yellow plane”, the light fixed-wing aircraft that Doug Smith and his team use to do radio telemetry and visual observation tracking, for many years. Of course, Yellowstone is not Designated Wilderness, although all 2.2 million acres are “proposed”/”recommended”, and theoretically, managed as wilderness (per the NPS website: That yellow plane makes an effort to stay above the 2,000 foot minimum altitude allowed, but it is still intrusive to an extent. Far more intrusive are the helicopters they use for annual trapping and radio-collaring operations, typically on weekdays in January, which minimizes the impact on visitors. Those tend to be quick “in and out” operations. I have to wonder just how easy it would be to use helicopters to facilitate trapping and radio-collar maintenance/placement operations. There aren’t that many good landing areas in the North Cascades, once you get below treeline. I guess they could try to do some sort of shorthauling or rappeling approach, but extrication of the personnel could be challenging. This could be one of those “devil’s in the details” circumstances. I’m sure Wilderness Watch is pitching a “worst case scenario” that supports their argument. I am hoping that those with management responsibility would use the spiffy new GPS-equipped radio collars, so some of the tracking could be accomplished via satellite. I also hope that fixed wing aircraft would be used for radio telemetry as often as safety and weather considerations would allow. The one key difference between a grizzly bear population and a wolf population is the denning of bears in winter. I’m not current on radio collar technology. I hope we have something that can be detected by fixed wing aircraft in winter. I am sympathetic to the Wilderness Watch argument to some extent. At the same time, I agree with your stance on not allowing a philosophical stake in the ground allowing grizzly introduction to take place. I would like to see the USFWS and any other key management stakeholders address the use of aircraft, particularly helos, to see if they are willing to stretch themselves a little in the recognition that this is designated wilderness. Part of my fixation on dens and winter is that if the collars can’t be detected in winter, that would tend to concentrate most of the telemetry and maintenance operations into summer, when most of the human use would be taking place. I just want to see us make maximum use of the technology available to address the Wilderness Watch concerns, but not allow their argument to sideline the implementation of Alternative B.


    • You bring up some legitimate concerns. Perhaps the final EIS should be more specific about certain ways to mitigate impacts to wilderness character. A USFWS biologist told those of us at the Stehekin grizzly info meeting that every bear in the project would be collared. Presumably, they’d be using GPS collars as they provide so much more information than radio collars. This would reduce the number of flights over the park. Your concerns and Wilderness Watch’s would be the type of comments that can make the EIS stronger.

      Speaking of flights though, most people who have been to Katmai’s wilderness understands the impact unrestricted aircraft access has on wilderness experience. Nearly all of Katmai’s Pacific coast is designated wilderness but places like Hallo Bay see many, many airplane landings per day. All those flights in and out of Brooks Camp can be seen and heard from nearby wilderness too. At Katmai I rarely went a day without hearing or seeing multiple (sometimes a dozen or more) planes, so I don’t foresee how the flights necessary (plane or helicopter) for the bear restoration would approach that level of impact (which is detrimental to wilderness experience, IMO).

      The more I think about it, and maybe I think about it too much, I believe wilderness should be designated and protected simply as a means to keep land undeveloped to provide habitat for plants and animals. That might be the highest and greatest use of much of our remaining public lands. Opportunities for solitude and other wilderness values should be protected as well, but they can no longer be the prime motivation for protecting wilderness (the Wilderness Act was passed to provide people with access to undeveloped places and primitive experiences). Maybe the Wilderness Act should be amended so that wilderness can be designated simply for ecological reasons.


      • I think you raise some very valid issues regarding the reality of what goes on in certain wilderness areas. To be honest, I wasn’t aware that most of Katmai is wilderness, even though it makes perfect sense. I have been to Brooks Camp once, on a day trip from King Salmon, and I was amazed at the volume of air traffic in and out of there. Last Labor Day Weekend, we visited Homer, and I was surprised to see how many different bear viewing flightseeing companies had offices out on the Spit. They all seemed to be having trouble attracting business, since it was nearing the end of the season. I think the Wilderness Act, like many other good ideas, needs updating. It may be that we need to diversify our concept of wilderness into multiple subcategories. I can’t imagine someone getting away with flying a floatplane in to a lake in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but there are all sorts of wilderness areas in Alaska that allow float planes or tundra tire-equipped planes to come and go. I’m recalling the days of the nationwide 55 mph speed limit. Over time, so many people were violating the law that the government had to choose from among a number of unpalatable options. Certain knowledgeable people warned about the long term implications of holding firm on the 55 mph limit, because millions of citizens had to choose between becoming a seeming scofflaw or going painfully slow, particularly on some of the rural highways in sparsely populated areas of the West. Eventually, the government relented, and abolished the national speed limit. If we are going to allow the volume of beach landings we are seeing at Hallo Bay and other parts of coastal Katmai, while vigorously prohibiting the behavior in other wilderness areas, we should diversify classifications of wilderness OR add some sort of legislative “rider” granting special consideration for certain places.


      • As a side note, ANILCA allows activities in Alaska’s federal wilderness areas that are otherwise prohibited in the Lower 48. An NPS solicitor has even said bicycles can be used in Alaska wilderness. I’m not sure that’s still the opinion, but it is the reason Katmai made the effort to prohibit bikes from the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes a few years ago.

        I didn’t know you’ve been to Brooks Camp. Do you think you’ll have another opportunity to head that way since you’re settled near Anchorage?


  3. While hiking near Diablo in the late 1980’s we had the opportunity to see a grizzly up close and personal in the North Cascades. He/or she was on a rock slide area ,above our trail, turning over rocks looking for food. The large hump was impossible to miss, this was no black bear. I turned to look up at it and our eyes met. We slowly backed away and went back down the trail.I feel privileged to be one of the few who have seen a North Cascade grizzly and often wonder if descendants of that bear remain.


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