Why are Grizzly Bears Vital

GRIZZLY BEARS

Why are grizzly bears important?

Grizzly bears are culturally and spiritually significant to Native American and First Nations communities throughout the U.S. Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Grizzlies are seen as teachers, guides and symbols of strength and wisdom to indigenous peoples. They are a regional icon and a key part of our natural heritage.

Grizzly bears are considered an “umbrella” species, and they play an important role for healthy ecosystems. Habitat that supports grizzly bears also supports hundreds of other plants and animals and human needs like clean water, healthy forests and quality outdoor opportunities. Grizzly bears provide a yardstick with which to gauge the health of our wild lands.

Like all native species grizzly bears play a critical ecological role. They spread seeds from plants on which they feed, like huckleberries and in some areas distribute marine or aquatic nutrients from fish including cutthroat trout and salmon. Their prolific digging for bulbs and burrowing rodents help aerate soils and their defecations help fertilize those areas, particularly in mid and high elevation habitats.

Grizzly bears have been part of the Pacific Northwest landscape for thousands of years. We have an ethical and legal obligation to restore this and other native species. Grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades is an important part of national efforts to restore endangered animals where suitable habitat still exists.

What is the life history of a grizzly bear?

The average life span of a grizzly is 15 to 20 years. The oldest wild grizzly bear ever captured in North America was a 34 year old female.

Female grizzlies usually begin to breed at five to six years old and have on average two cubs. Cubs are born in the den in late January. They are helpless and weigh less than a pound.

Grizzlies have cubs every three years on average. Cubs accompany their mother until she has another litter. Grizzly bear mothers are highly protective of their young and will risk death to protect them. Male bears do not participate in caring for the young.

Read more at Western Wildlife Outreach.

What do grizzly bears eat? How much do they eat?

Grizzlies are omnivores. Like humans, they eat both plants and animals. They are also opportunists, taking advantage of whatever is available. Generally less than 20 percent of a grizzly bear’s diet is meat. Most of their diet is from vegetable materials such as berries, roots, and grasses. They also scavenge meat from winter-killed animals, dig for rodents, and eat termites, ants, grubs and other insects. If the opportunity arises they can become adept at fishing and hunting.

Because they must live off stored fat for three to six months of the year, they eat large quantities in summer and fall. An adult male may consume the caloric equivalent of ten huckleberry pies per day during the height of the berry season.

How large an area does an individual grizzly bear require?

A grizzly bear’s home range size depends on the richness of the habitat in bear foods. Grizzly bears are not territorial. They do not stake out and defend a well-defined area but follow food availability. Food sources are generally seasonal which forces bears to use different elevations and habitats. A grizzly’s daily movements may vary widely by season, food availability, age and sex of the bear, security cover, and level of disturbance.

The average home range size throughout North America for an adult female grizzly bear is about 70 square miles. Adult males have much larger home ranges, often 300-500 square miles and the home ranges of several bears could overlap. Research is needed to learn about grizzly bear home ranges and habitat use in the North Cascades.

Learn more about grizzly bear biology in this video from bear ecologist Chris Morgan: Wanted: Grizzly Bears?

NORTH CASCADES ECOSYSTEM

What is the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone?

The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Ecosystem is one of the largest contiguous blocks of Federal land remaining in the lower 48 states, encompassing approximately 9,800 square miles within north central Washington. Stretching from the US-Canada border south to Interstate 90, it includes all of the North Cascades National Park, and most of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests. Ninety-seven percent of the U.S. portion of the North Cascades GBRZ is public land:

  • North Cascades National Park Service Complex = about 10 percent
  • Okanogan-Wenatchee & Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests = 76 percent
  • Other federal lands (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense) = 2.6 percent
  • State lands = 7.4 percent
  • County and municipal lands = 1 percent

Do grizzly bears live in the North Cascades Ecosystem today? 

There are currently believed to be fewer than 5-10 grizzly bears in the U.S. portion of the ecosystem. The 2012 estimate for the Canadian portion was six. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the grizzly bears in the U.S. portion are warranted for listing as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act, that change in status remains precluded by other priorities and they are listed as threatened. Because of their small numbers, however, they are widely believed to be the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the U.S. today.

The most recent confirmed observation of a grizzly bear in the U.S. Cascades was in 1996. Efforts during 2010-2012 to locate grizzly bears remaining in the U.S. portion of the ecosystem using barbed wire “corrals” to capture hair samples for DNA identification yielded no confirmed grizzly bears; however, less than a quarter of the ecosystem was sampled. There may be a small number of grizzly bears still living in the U.S. Cascades, but exactly how many is unknown.

One grizzly bear has been confirmed during the past five years in the British Columbia portion of the Cascades, within 20 miles of the U.S. border. See photo on our Resources page. Due to the remoteness of the ecosystem, it is highly unlikely that people have observed all of the grizzly bears in the ecosystem. One thing is certain – there are very few grizzlies remaining in the North Cascades.

Why should a healthy grizzly bear population be restored to the North Cascades?

Grizzly bears are at high risk of disappearing from the North Cascades. Restoring a viable grizzly population would contribute to the biodiversity in the ecosystem to the benefit of human beings and other species. With the restoration of populations of Pacific fisher (anticipated in the next few years) and grizzly bears, the North Cascades would be one of the few ecosystems left in the contiguous United States that has all the carnivore species known to be native prior to European settlement.

Grizzly bears in the lower 48 states currently exist in only two percent of their former range. Restoring a healthy population of grizzly bears to the North Cascades is part of a national grizzly recovery strategy and vital to the conservation of the species in general as it will increase their geographic distribution and genetic diversity.

To hear from local Washington experts on restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades, watch this video created for the Cascadia Partner Forum and WildLinks 2014.

How did we get here? Why restore grizzlies in the North Cascades and not in other regions where grizzly bears once roamed? 

Grizzly bears were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as threatened in 1975. After a species is listed under the ESA, recovery plans are usually prepared – basically blueprints for a recovery strategy where the species no longer needs the protections provided by the ESA.

A recovery plan for grizzly bears was completed in 1982, with individual “chapters” for each of the four recovery areas where grizzly bears currently live or occurred in the recent past. At the time it was unknown whether the North Cascades could support a viable grizzly population. So the 1982 plan recommended an evaluation of the North Cascades Ecosystem as a grizzly bear recovery area.

The evaluation (1986-1991) indicated that a very small number of grizzly bears still lived in the ecosystem and that there was ample secure and quality habitat to support a self-sustaining population.

In 1991 based on the results of the evaluation the federal biologists decided to restore grizzly bears to the ecosystem. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee then formalized the inclusion of the North Cascades as a grizzly bear recovery area. A recovery plan chapter for the North Cascades was appended to the overall recovery plan in 1997. One of four priority actions recommended in the North Cascades Recovery Plan chapter was to initiate an EIS to evaluate alternatives for how to recover grizzly bears in this ecosystem.

Government, led by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has now begun the EIS process and expects to complete it sometime in 2020 with a Final EIS and Record of Decision that will guide grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades.

Want to know more about the history of grizzly bear recovery efforts in the North Cascades, check out this timeline put together by the National Park Service.

Why can’t grizzly bears recolonize the North Cascades on their own?

Although there are grizzly bears in southwest British Columbia, their numbers are depressed because of habitat fragmentation, human development and associated effects on bear security (e.g. poaching, human conflict) and genetic diversity. Because of barriers such as the Fraser River Valley and TransCanada Highway, the North Cascades Ecosystem is not well-connected to grizzly bear populations in the B.C. Coast and Chilcotin Ranges so there are no readily available source bear populations to recolonize the North Cascades naturally. On top of the connectivity barriers, grizzly bears are slow to increase in numbers because of their reproductive biology – they are the second slowest reproducing land animal in North America, next to the musk ox. All of these factors combine to make natural recolonization of the North Cascades by grizzly bears traveling in from elsewhere nearly impossible.

How long will it take to achieve a healthy grizzly bear population in the North Cascades?

Even with active restoration, it will take many decades before the North Cascades has a healthy grizzly bear population. Grizzly bears are slow to increase in numbers because of their reproductive biology – they are the second slowest reproducing land animal in North America, next to the musk ox.

Females are usually five to six years old when they have their first litter and then have an average of two cubs about every three years. Not all of these cubs survive to maturity. A typical female grizzly bear will have five cubs that survive to adulthood. Growth of the North Cascades grizzly bear population, under the best conditions will be very slow.

RECREATION AND BEARS

Is recreation compatible with grizzly bear survival?

Yes, recreation is compatible with grizzly bears. As long as people use straightforward precautions and common sense in bear habitat to keep clean camps and avoid surprising bears along trails, there is little impact on either people or bears from recreation. Most grizzly bears try to avoid people, so an encounter or even seeing a bear is unlikely. Hundreds of thousands of people hike, fish, hunt, camp and enjoy grizzly bear habitat every year with very few conflicts of any kind.

Could recreation be impacted by grizzly bears? Will trails and roads be closed because of grizzly bears?

There could be rare instances in which a trail is closed temporarily, usually because a bear is feeding nearby, for example to protect people and bears from possible conflict. But to date there have not been any permanently closed trails on any public lands where grizzlies are found. In the North Cascades it is not anticipated that any trails will be permanently closed or not maintained because of grizzly bear recovery.

Road closures and maintenance on national forests within the Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone are determined predominantly by economic and water quality reasons. Protecting wildlife and habitat including but not limited to grizzly bears is another reason but not the main driver. The current total number of national forest road miles in the North Cascades far exceeds the available funding to maintain them and poorly constructed or maintained roads have enormous impacts on water quality and fish. These impacts and related road management is not dependent on or directly impacted by grizzly bear recovery.

How much danger do grizzly bears pose to humans?

The potential for having an adverse encounter with a grizzly bear is extremely low. Even when they occur, most bear encounters do not lead to human injury. Conflict encounters can usually be avoided through awareness of conditions that may cause an encounter. Keeping a clean camp, not approaching wildlife too closely, and avoiding situations that might unknowingly surprise a bear will greatly decrease the risk of an unwanted bear encounter. Proper sanitation practices and familiarity with bear behavior are likely to be the best safeguards against unwanted encounters.

Grizzly bear management focuses on minimizing or eliminating conditions that could attract bears to humans, such as improper garbage disposal or sanitation, and promoting increased awareness among people of how best to reduce the possibility of an adverse bear encounter. Proper management minimizes the potential for conflicts.

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