Paula MacKay and Robert Long – Special to The Seattle Times
The North Cascades ecosystem is one of the wildest places in the Lower 48, but we’re missing a key large mammal. The National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently announced plans to evaluate options for restoring grizzly bears in the North Cascades. We must all work together to make this ecosystem whole again.
For millennia, grizzly bears were widely distributed in the North Cascades, more than 6 million acres of wild lands in Washington abutting additional habitat in British Columbia. Grizzlies also roamed the surrounding lowlands and were important to the cultural and hunting traditions of Indigenous peoples.
Despite this extensive history and habitat, once-abundant grizzlies are gone here. The North Cascades population was decimated by persecution and the fur trade in the 1800s and has not been able to make a comeback. Today, the North Cascade ecosystem is isolated from grizzly populations elsewhere by roads and development.
In the early 2010s, we were part of a team of field biologists who deployed hair-snagging devices and cameras throughout the North Cascades to survey for grizzly bears. We collected thousands of black bear hairs and photos, but not a single hair or image from a grizzly. No grizzlies have been confirmed in the Washington Cascades since 1996, and only two have been documented on the Canadian side in recent years. We and other researchers have determined that grizzly bears need our help.
Two decades have passed since the Fish & Wildlife Service first decided to recover grizzlies in the North Cascades ecosystem. Finally, in January 2017, federal agencies released a draft environmental impact statement presenting several alternatives for recovery. Planning was temporarily halted, but now it has legs again. We’re working with the Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear coalition to ensure that grizzlies get a second chance.
Out on the trail, many people asked us why we should restore grizzly bears. The answer to this question is rooted in the land. Although black bears and grizzlies are closely related omnivores, each has a unique ecological role to play. Both species disperse seeds, for example, but grizzlies also aerate the soil when they dig for food. Given their huge home ranges, diverse diets, sensitivity to roads and varied habitats, grizzly bears are indicators of healthy, resilient landscapes.
Is there still enough habitat for grizzlies in the North Cascades? Yes — in fact, this ecosystem has been identified as one of the few remaining in the contiguous U.S. capable of supporting a viable grizzly bear population, and the only recovery area outside of the Rockies. Recent research estimates that the North Cascades ecosystem could ultimately support more grizzlies than live in Yellowstone National Park, a globally renowned destination for bear-watching.
It’s been a while since we’ve coexisted with grizzlies and some of us are wary. But careful bear management, human safety and “bear awareness” would be top priorities during the recovery process — and Washingtonians already know how to share the landscape with wildlife. We can’t miss this long-awaited opportunity to make nature whole again.
Woodland Park Zoo is committed to the conservation of bears and recognizes their ecological, cultural and intrinsic values. When wildlife officials rescued a lone brown bear cub in Alaska this summer, the zoo stepped forward to give her a home. Named Juniper, she was an instantly beloved ambassador for her species with our visitors. Juniper has been joined by Fern, another orphaned cub that came from Montana.
Let these two charismatic young bears inspire us to think about how exciting and vital it is for National Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service to enable grizzlies to once again fulfill their ecological role in the North Cascades. Please make your voice heard by submitting a public comment here.
Paula MacKay is a conservationist, field biologist and writer. She works as a carnivore conservation specialist at Woodland Park Zoo.
Robert Long is a conservation biologist specializing in montane carnivores and a senior conservation scientist and director, Living Northwest Program, Woodland Park Zoo.