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

Alaska vs the Feds: Predator Control on National Wildlife Refuges

Should Alaska be permitted to implement predator control measures on Alaska’s national wildlife refuges? The feds say no, but a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.J.R. 69 and its equivalent in the Senate, S.J. 18, will rescind U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations that prohibit predator control methods on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, specifically:

  • Taking black or brown bear cubs or sows with cubs (exception allowed for resident hunters to take black bear cubs or sows with cubs under customary and traditional use activities at a den site October 15-April 30 in specific game management units in accordance with State law);
  • Taking brown bears over bait;
  • Taking of bears using traps or snares;
  • Taking wolves and coyotes during the denning season (May 1-August 9); and
  • Taking bears from an aircraft or on the same day as air travel has occurred. The take of wolves or wolverines from an aircraft or on the same day as air travel has occurred is already prohibited under current refuge regulations.

Alaska and the Alaska congressional delegation contend the state should continue to manage wildlife harvest on refuges. Rep. Don Young, H.J.R. 69’s sponsor, argues that the USFWS regs are an unacceptable federal overreach. He believes wildlife management should be left to the state of Alaska. (H.J.R. 69 already passed the House of Representatives by a 225 to 193 vote.)

However, national wildlife refuge managers in Alaska determined the “hunting” practices adopted by the state of Alaska are predator control, which is an unnecessary and prohibited manipulation of ecosystem processes on national wildlife refuges. The state has said the Feds can’t prove it’s predator control, but the hunting methods and the species they target are designed to reduce predator populations. By allowing those methods, the Alaska Board of Game forced the USFWS’s hand, as well as that of the National Park Service who manages national preserves in Alaska.

Compared to the USFWS regs, the NPS has very similar regulations on the books for hunting in national preserves. The NPS regs will not be affected by H.J.R. 69 or S.J. 18, although Alaska has sued the NPS over it. Here’s why the NPS justifies the prohibition:

“In the last several years, the State of Alaska has allowed an increasing number of liberalized methods of hunting and trapping wildlife and extended seasons to increase opportunities to harvest predator species.

“These practices are not consistent with the NPS’s implementation of ANILCA’s authorization of sport hunting and trapping in national preserves. To the extent such practices are intended or reasonably likely to manipulate wildlife populations for harvest purposes or alter natural wildlife behaviors, they are not consistent with NPS management policies implementing the NPS Organic Act or the sections of ANILCA that established the national preserves in Alaska. Additional liberalizations by the State that are inconsistent with NPS management directives, policies, and federal law are anticipated in the future.”

Here’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s justification in a nutshell:

“The different purposes of State and Federal laws and the increased focus on predator control by the State have resulted in the need for FWS to deviate, in certain respects, from applying State regulations within refuges. This is because predator-prey interactions represent a dynamic and foundational ecological process in Alaska’s arctic and subarctic ecosystems, and are a major driver of ecosystem function. State regulations allowing activities on refuges in Alaska that are inconsistent with the conservation of fish and wildlife populations and their habitats in their natural diversity, or the maintenance of biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health, are in direct conflict with our legal mandates for administering refuges in Alaska under ANILCA, the Improvement Act, and the Wilderness Act, as well as with applicable agency policies (601 FW 3, 610 FW 2, and 605 FW 2).

“In managing for natural diversity, FWS conserves, protects, and manages all fish and wildlife populations within a particular wildlife refuge system unit in the natural `mix,’ not to emphasize management activities favoring one species to the detriment of another. FWS assures that habitat diversity is maintained through natural means on refuges in Alaska, avoiding artificial developments and habitat manipulation programs, whenever possible. FWS fully recognizes and considers that rural residents use, and are often dependent on, refuge resources for subsistence purposes, and FWS manages for this use consistent with the conservation of species and habitats in their natural diversity.”

As Don Young contends, this is a state versus federal rights issue. However, he doesn’t attempt to disprove the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services justifications for the regulations (which, again, prohibit the state’s predator control practices on national wildlife refuges). The congressman’s efforts through H.J.R 69 is an attempt to limit the authority of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. (Alaska’s senators, Sullivan and Murkowski, sponsor S.J. 18, the Senate equivalent of H.J.R. 69.)

This bill isn’t just about killing bear cubs and wolf pups, although that’s how a lot of click bait portrays the issue.

It’s really about whether predator control should occur in national wildlife refuges. Its about states’ rights versus federal authority. Personally, I believe the prohibited hunting methods are nothing more than thinly veiled predator control, which should not be allowed on land managed in the national interest.

If you’re concerned about predator control on wildlife refuges in Alaska, then you should oppose these bills.  The House resolution has already passed, so any efforts should be focused on the Senate version, S.J. 18.

Edit: The Senate passed H.J.R 69 by a 52-47 vote. The President is expected to sign it into law.

National Parks Aren’t Pure

National parks are often billed as places of change and integrity (even by me), where nature can take its course. Yet, they face unprecedented challenges and are managed so that nature doesn’t take its course in many cases. Some parks cull wildlife through controlled hunts or periodic roundups (Wind Cave, Badlands). Biologists occasionally control one species to benefit an endangered animal (Cape Cod). Now, the National Park Service has developed a draft plan to prevent the extirpation of wolves from Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Plans such as this, which suggest increasing levels of intervention in ecosystem management, are the future of conservation in national parks. This is a future, and a current reality, where humans have so fundamentally altered the planet that nature doesn’t exist outside our influence. Parks aren’t pure anymore.

In the early 20th century, national parks and monuments were managed primarily for aesthetics, spectacle, and recreation. Park superintendents and rangers had preconceived notions of what parklands should look like and the experiences they should provide visitors. Caves were manipulated and became showcases to march people through sensitive areas. Predators like wolves and mountain lions were vilified and persecuted. Bears were a sideshow. Feeding them at dumps and roadsides was often encouraged. Insecticides were sprayed to control native insect outbreaks. The long-standing philosophy was: parks ought to be pretty and tidy.

As respect for wilderness and ecological integrity grew, people began to reconsider how national parks were managed. In 1963, an advisory board for the Department of Interior issued Wildlife Management in the National Parks, or the Leopold Report after the board’s chair, A. Starker Leopold. Admittedly “conceptual,” the Leopold Report fundamentally altered natural resource management in parks.

The Leopold Report catalyzed a time of real soul searching for park managers. The report asked, “How far should the National Park Service go in utilizing the tools of management to maintain wildlife populations?” It acknowledged that few parks are large enough to be self-regulating ecosystems. It went further by stating the biological communities in parks are artifacts and that management is often essential to maintain some biotic communities. The report famously recommended the National Park Service manage parklands as “vignettes of primitive America,” a philosophical shift that on the surface represents a more pure vision of what national parks should and could be—places that resemble the prevailing conditions experienced by the first Europeans.

While noble, this ideal is wrought with fallacy. The Leopold Report admitted primitive America could never be recreated fully. Just to list a few examples: passenger pigeons are extinct, American chestnuts are functionally extinct, wild bison almost became extinct, and wolves were extirpated across most of their range in the United States. It also made no accommodation for Native American use and manipulation of the land. Essentially, any recreation of “primitive America” is artificial, but something to strive for.

What should we do when the line blurs between maintaining a primitive landscape and acknowledging there is no longer any such thing? Isle Royale National Park is one of the most recent parks to grapple with this issue. Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, sitting about twenty miles east of Grand Portage, Minnesota, and most of it is designated federal wilderness. The upper Great Lakes region was one of the few places in the Lower 48 states where wolves maintained a foothold throughout the 20th century, but Isle Royale was wolf-free in the early 1900s. Wolves only returned to the island in the late 1940s after crossing the ice on Lake Superior.

Only two wolves were observed on the island in 2016 (the historical average, according to the draft wolf introduction plan, is 20-30). The population plummeted because disease (canine parvovirus) and a lack of connectivity with the mainland reduced genetic diversity. The animals are now extremely inbred and remain in a genetic bottleneck they probably won’t escape. Even though Isle Royale has numerous moose (the wolves’ primary prey), the wolves will likely disappear from the island without human intervention. Is it wrong to let the wolves disappear?

Yellowstone National Park’s effort to reintroduce wolves is the most famous wolf reintroduction program in history. It is also a remarkable success, from the standpoint of the wolf. The reintroduction of wolves arguably shifted the ecosystem into top-down mode where large predators like wolves exert strong influence on the behavior and abundance prey species. Yellowstone’s effort corrected a wrong—people extirpated the park’s wolves through hunting, trapping, and poisoning. Now, a strong case can be made that humans are driving Isle Royale’s wolves to extirpation, just in a less obvious way.

At first, disease and a lack of connectivity with the mainland seem like natural influences, after all Isle Royale is an isle and many diseases infect wolves. Canine parvovirus is not native to the island, however. This disease caused the wolf population to decline drastically in 1981, from 50 to 14, and the population has never fully recovered. Wolves immigrate and emigrate from the island over ice bridges on Lake Superior. A warming climate trend has drastically reduced the frequency of the ice bridges, so much so that only one formed in the first decade of the 20th century. As the climate continues to warm, ice bridges will form less and less. For those reasons, you could easily make a case that humans precipitated the decline of wolves and therefore we should intervene.

The island would become a different place without wolves. Vegetation changes would become more pronounced and happen at a faster rate. Moose browsing threatens the persistence of big-tooth aspen, red oak, and balsam poplar on the island, but vegetation changes are not tied to moose alone. Computer models indicate many dominant tree species (balsam fir, white spruce, black spruce) may disappear from the island due to a warming climate. Paper birch and quaking aspen are expected to undergo serious declines. Park managers expect that in the presence of wolves, moose herbivory would be less likely to exacerbate climate change’s influences on vegetation. Looking at the issue from the perspective of ecosystem health and biological integrity, the presence of wolves is probably necessary to prevent habitat degradation, or at least slow it. Therefore, should we intervene? The NPS thinks so, and I don’t necessarily disagree.

There is no ecological difference between humans supplementing wolves on the island and wolves immigrating naturally across an ice bridge. The only difference is mental, cultural. We’d know we did it. We’d know we manipulated the ecosystem. We know we messed with primitive America. For some people, that trammels the island’s wilderness and severely impacts its natural quality.

We need to get over any of that if we want to maintain some biological integrity in the future.

In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argues that by burning fossil fuels, we’ve fundamentally altered Earth’s atmosphere causing global warming, and nature, as it is classically known (the physical world outside of humanity and human creations), no longer exists. Now, not even the deepest ocean trenches are free of our fingerprints. There is no place untouched by humanity. Even if we did not alter climate, humans are so numerous and so thoroughly dominate most terrestrial ecosystems that McKibben’s hypothesis would still stand. We impact the evolution of life on Earth.

Recognizing that much has changed and much has been learned since 1960s, a National Park System Advisory Board revisited the Leopold Report in 2012 and recommended the NPS manage for constant change, instead of striving for a past ideal. Isle Royale’s plan could be supportive of the old and new philosophies. Wolves are valued members of a primitive America, but under current and projected future climate conditions, Isle Royale’s wolves may indefinitely need a helping human hand to remain viable. If we value wolves on the island, then we’re probably committed to supplementing population in perpetuity. Revisiting Leopold recommends the NPS expand their management strategies to encompass a geographic scope beyond park boundaries. If parks, in order to remain ecologically viable, need greater habitat connectivity to other wild lands, then they should forcefully advocate for that. We can no longer pretend national parks are vignettes of primitive America. Wilderness areas can no longer be considered “untrammeled” and “affected primarily by forces of nature” as stated in the 1964 Wilderness Act. We have to choose what parks represent and what they protect.

I’m not opposed to any of the alternatives proposed to introduce wolves to Isle Royale. It’s probably wrong to let wolves disappear from Isle Royale because climate change limits the chances of more wolves immigrating to the island naturally, but there are a lot of threats to biodiversity and we need to choose our battles wisely. We won’t be able to intervene in every Isle Royale-like scenario.

Are we any more intelligent or sophisticated than managers, rangers, and park visitors in the 1910s and 1920s when wolves were more vilified? They could’ve left animals alone to do their own thing. They didn’t, because they didn’t want to. Because, American culture said we should do otherwise. Now, we face a lot of the same questions. What do we value most in parks? How should we protect the things we value within them?

I like to believe, sometime in the future, humans will have voluntarily reduced our footprint enough so that most plants and animals can evolve without our influence. We’re not there yet, certainly not with 7.4 billion of us living in a market economy driven largely by greater and greater levels of consumption. So, yeah, we should help Isle Royale’s wolves, but let’s not pretend national parks are pure wildlands. There is no purity in national park ecosystems anymore. Perhaps there never was.

(The NPS is accepting comments on the Isle Royale National Park Draft Environmental Impact Statement to Address the Presence of Wolves through March 15, 2017.)

wolf standing in snowy forest

Photo courtesy of Isle Royale National Park.