Activism unmoored from information harms nature
Conservation Northwest / Oct 25, 2019 / Grizzly Bears, North Cascades
Positions on grizzly restoration, especially those of advocacy groups, should be rooted in facts and science.
By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director
A wilderness advocacy group recently took a position (on the matter of restoring grizzly bears in the North Cascades) so uninformed and ill-founded that it made me a bit embarrassed for the conservation movement as a whole.
Reasonable people can reach different opinions based on shared facts. But it’s unreasonable when a party bungles basic research and shoots our cause in the foot. Such behavior, whether it’s out of laziness, ignorance, unbridled idealism, or any other cause, should be called out.
The group Wilderness Watch names a variety of reasons to oppose any pro-active options to translocate grizzly bears to the North Cascades in order to save and restore the dwindling population in our region. I can accept that they have a different view on whether grizzly bear recovery is an important enough objective to warrant limited use of helicopters in designated Wilderness Areas, or that the amount of aircraft use is worth comment and debate. But I can’t accept their face plant on the following erroneous points.
“…the methods proposed (e.g., moving bears) could result in death or injury of the bears, which are endangered.”
While it’s true that translocating individual animals of any species carries potential risks to those individuals, incidents of capture-related grizzly mortality are extremely rare while translocation successes are well-documented and indeed credited with recovering the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population from certain extirpation (more details on that in our Time for the Grizzly? film by renowned ecologist, bear conservationist and TV host Chris Morgan).
But Wilderness Watch’s main stated concern would only apply if the bears were coming from a population that is itself critically endangered. Nothing in the Draft North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) can be construed to propose such tactics. The document is clear that translocation alternatives would draw animals from viable, wild grizzly populations with similar ecological features and food sources to the North Cascades, likely areas of northern Montana or north-central British Columbia, where populations are robust.
Even worse are inaccurate allegations made about grizzly bears in southern British Columbia, and the collaborative bear conservation and recovery work happening there.
“Information is lacking on the status of grizzlies on the Canadian side of the border though this area is crucial in any success, as bears wander between the U.S. and British Columbia in the North Cascades ecosystem.”
This falsehood reveals lazy research. Researchers have very good estimates of the state of grizzly populations in southern B.C., with proximity to the North Cascades based on DNA hair snag methods. Recovering (and interlinking) those populations, which are all indeed endangered, is the focus of the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, which Conservation Northwest administers.
Compounding problems with natural recovery, five of British Columbia’s nine threatened grizzly bear populations are found in southwestern B.C. Two of those (B.C. North Cascades and the Stein-Nahatlatch) are deemed Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN). There are fewer than six grizzlies in the Canadian North Cascades, and fewer than two dozen in the Stein-Nahatlatch to the northwest across the Fraser River Valley and its accompanying rail and highway corridors. Bears in southern B.C.’s Garibaldi-Pitt Grizzly Bear Population Unit (GBPU) a little further west towards Whistler are also in the low single digits. These are not viable source populations for recovery in the mountains of north-central Washington state.
The isolation and low numbers (North Cascades Ecosystem < 6 bears, Stein-Nahatlatch < 24 bears) coupled with female reproductive and dispersal limitations means that we’ll need more than “patience” for “natural recovery” in a viable grizzly restoration strategy for Washington’s North Cascades. Building adjacent grizzly numbers and restoring even minimal demographic and genetic connectivity between those and the Cascades are very long-term goals
Further details on grizzly bear conservation in southern British Columbia are widely available from local wildlife managers, First Nations, conservation groups, as well as online, including a recent report by British Columbia’s auditor general.
In short, the science is clear that there are no viable grizzly bear populations proximate to the Cascades with enough bears to repopulate the area by just walking there, particularly when considering female reluctance to cross areas with human infrastructure such as the heavily-developed Fraser Valley. Yet Wilderness Watch neglected to do such research and outreach, jumping straight to what appears to be a predetermined conclusion:
“The best way to meet the goal of a viable grizzly population in the North Cascades would be to allow for and boldly promote the natural recovery of grizzlies. A natural recovery alternative would require working with British Columbia to protect grizzlies over a larger land base and would provide for connectivity between populations in the U.S. and Canada using protected habitat corridors. It would also include other measures to ensure that grizzlies are not killed by humans, regardless of what side of the border they are on and whether they are in national parks, Wilderness, or other public or private lands. It might take longer and require more patience than the instant gratification of capturing and releasing dozens of bears, but it would ultimately create a more durable population sharing the landscape with a human population that is more likely to respect the bears that make it back to the North Cascades on their own.”
I hesitate to describe this argument as magical thinking, as it shares similarities with the long-term strategic objectives and methods of our Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative. But the timelines and interim tactics couldn’t be more different. Such a position is wholly uninformed by the current scarcity of grizzlies across this region, the existing barriers in southern British Columbia to grizzly bear movement into the Cascades and the reproductive and dispersal limitations of female bears.
Referring to the transboundary North Cascades, Garth Mowatt, British Columbia Government’s Large Carnivore Lead sums it up: “There has been no way for grizzly bears to get back into that area on their own, even though there is a lot of really good habitat there.”
So while Wilderness Watch’s argument may read well on paper and feel righteous to whoever wrote it, it is ill-informed and nothing short of an absolute blessing of extinction of grizzly bears in the North Cascades. No informed conservation biologist would see it otherwise. In fact, it reads much like the inaccurate and unsubstantiated allegations made by some opponents of grizzly bear recovery.
To achieve the stated goal of grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades, independent and government biologists are unequivocal that bear translocations into the ecosystem are necessary.
It is also important to note that Wilderness Watch grossly exaggerates the number of helicopter runs needed to transport those bears into the North Cascades, particularly if the agencies choose Alternative C (read more in our comments, this blog, or in the DEIS itself).
There’s a phrase about how well-intentioned people sometimes hold the perfect out against the good. That wouldn’t apply in this case, where it’s more accurate to describe the position of Wilderness Watch as holding the imaginary against the achievable.
Grizzly bears, and nature itself, need and deserve better champions than this.