Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative 2021 update
Conservation Northwest / May 26, 2021 / British Columbia, Coast to Cascades
The Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative is a collaborative effort to stem the ongoing loss of grizzly bear range and promote grizzly bear recovery in the transboundary ecosystems of southwest British Columbia and Washington state.
By Joe Scott, International Programs Director
Southern British Columbia’s Coast to Cascades region has unparalleled geographic, cultural and biological diversity, spanning coastal forests, glacial valleys, dry interior forests, shrub-steppe and grasslands. The free-flowing Fraser River, which bisects this region, and its hundreds of tributaries host a bounty of salmon and other aquatic species. It is the ancestral home to dozens of Indigenous communities who rely on productive ecosystems for subsistence and traditional needs.
The Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative (C2C) is a collaborative effort to stem the ongoing loss of grizzly bear range and promote grizzly bear recovery in the transboundary ecosystems of southwest British Columbia (B.C.) and Washington state. C2C aims to restore at-risk grizzly bear populations by boosting bear numbers and genetic diversity through translocations, protecting and restoring core and linkage habitats and promoting human-bear coexistence.
Iconic grizzly bears, once abundant here, are now in danger of disappearing from the region due to habitat degradation and fragmentation from roads, logging and other development, booming backcountry recreation, increasing human conflict, low numbers, and genetic isolation. Fewer than 100 grizzly bears remain in four semi-isolated populations scattered across this sprawling area: the Squamish-Lillooet, Garibaldi-Pitt, and critically-endangered Stein-Nahatlatch and transboundary North Cascades populations.
Efforts in the Stein-Nahatlatch and North Cascades populations
The C2C Team works collaboratively with the St’át’imc, Okanagan Nation Alliance, Stó:lō, Nlaka’pamux and Simpcw First Nations, noted grizzly bear research scientists and the B.C. government in the South Coast Grizzly Bear Working Group. The working group coordinates recovery efforts in the critically endangered Stein-Nahatlatch and North Cascades units and is tasked with refining and implementing strategies toward the goal of a restored and reconnected grizzly bear population.
This work was recently supported by the Disney Conservation Fund! Read more in our March 2020 update. Thank you, Disney!
The Stein-Nahatlatch Grizzly Bear population unit is anchored by Stein Valley Heritage Nlaka’pamux Park, southeast of Pemberton, northeast of Harrison Lake and west of the Fraser River, and is home to approximately 24 bears.
Primary strategies for grizzly bear recovery in the area include bringing in grizzly bears to boost the local population and managing or closing roads that may lead to human/bear conflict to motorized access. Both of these objectives are forging ahead, with the C2C supporting Indigenous-led efforts for bear translocations into this area starting in 2021 by the St’át’imc, Nlaka’pamux and Simpcw First Nations.
Supported by Indigenous knowledge, telemetry, DNA and camera data from the past 15 years, First Nations and scientists have identified several backcountry roads for some type of closure in the Stein area. Managing these roads appropriately would greatly reduce motorized access to entire sections of habitat, enhancing grizzly bear habitat security and facilitating connectivity across what is now a fragmented landscape. Behind the closures subsistence and ceremonial activities, hiking, biking, and hunting and gathering would still be permitted.
North Cascades Grizzly Bear Population Unit
British Columbia’s North Cascades Grizzly Bear Population Unit is anchored by B.C.’s Skagit and Manning Provincial Parks and the North Cascades National Park Complex in the U.S., and is home to approximately six grizzlies. There have been several recent grizzly sightings just north of the U.S.-Canada border, including in 2010, 2012 and 2015, though there have been no confirmed grizzly bear sightings in Washington’s North Cascades since 1996.
Recently, a technical team including local First Nations, research scientists, C2C staff and B.C. government representatives was struck to advise on recovery actions and geographic boundaries on the B.C. side of the border. C2C and the B.C. Government are supporting the Okanagan Nation Alliance, who is leading efforts to translocate up to 25 grizzly bears into the Canadian portion of the North Cascades within ten years, as well as expand public education and attractant management programs.
Bridging the Fraser River Corridor
The Fraser River and its associated transportation corridors including the TransCanada Highway lie between the Stein/Nahatlatch and North Cascades grizzly bear populations. While a serious barrier to wildlife movement and connectivity, there are extensive areas of Crown lands and many miles of undeveloped habitat on both sides of the river.
There is little data on bear movement across the Fraser River, but researchers have documented at least one grizzly bear that crossed the river from the Cascades and up to Pemberton. And at least one wolverine is known to have traveled from the North Cascades to the B.C. Coast Ranges.
By translocating mostly female grizzly bears into the North Cascades population, males from the Stein-Nahatlatch population will have more incentive to cross into the Cascades, thereby strengthening genetic connectivity between the Cascades and bears in the Coast Range to the northwest. Biologists assume that as the Stein-Nahatlatch unit reaches carrying capacity, some female grizzlies will also cross the river and take up residence in the Cascades.
Coexistence = Connectivity
There is ample Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and science that underscores the effectiveness of human-bear coexistence as a tool to restore habitat connectivity for grizzly bears. Coupled with key private lands purchases in linkage habitats, conflict prevention strategies can reverse or mitigate bear habitat fragmentation.
C2C has focused its coexistence work in three communities: Upper Bridge Rive, Portage Road and Pemberton Meadows in the upper Lillooet valley. These areas are critical for grizzly bear connectivity and have relatively a high historic and future potential for conflict. To promote human-grizzly coexistence, the C2C team is conducting area-wide education and outreach including presentations from bear experts, webinars and forums for recreationists, tutorials on securing food attractants with e-fencing and educational signage on roads and trails.
In January of this year, C2C partnered with Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) to host a webinar about impacts from backcountry recreation on grizzly bears, as well as a webinar in June 2020 about grizzly bear biology and coexistence.
Squamish-Lillooet and South Chilcotin populations
The Squamish-Lillooet population in the northwest includes the towns of Lillooet, Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish, with approximately 59 bears. Another 200+ grizzlies live in the South Chilcotin ranges at the north end of the Coast to Cascades region, providing a bridge between healthy grizzly bear populations in northern B.C., and those struggling in the southwest part of the province.
Recently the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) purchased a property known as Pemberton Meadows in the Upper Lillooet Watershed with extensive riparian areas and wetlands that provide important habitat for grizzlies in the Squamish-Lillooet and South Chilcotin populations, particularly in spring.
The C2C along with NCC and the Pemberton Wildlife Association have also funded two regional linkage analyses that will inform priorities for securing additional private lands.
New video featuring St’at’imc First Nation’s grizzly recovery efforts
Check out the recent video that our Indigenous partners at the St’at’imc Chief’s Council recently shared about grizzly recovery strategies in their territories.
“The grizzly bear would do all of these things for us and teach us these things, but all they wanted in return was respect, and for us to look after them,” said Cílcelnak, Xaxli’p, St’át’imc: Lenora Starr, St’át’imc Chiefs Council Lands and Heritage Manager. “So we’re going to go back to our agreement that we made with them, and turn it around and start looking after the bears now.”
With full steam ahead on grizzly bear recovery in southwest B.C., we’re looking forward to a healthy, connected population of grizzly bears that will once again roam the Coast to Cascades region.
We’re also optimistic the North Cascades Grizzly Bear recovery process on the U.S. side of the border will continue under the Biden Administration, further boosting the Northwest’s endangered grizzlies, and benefitting a diversity of species who share this landscape with the Great Bear.