No action is not a recovery strategy for North Cascades grizzly bears
Conservation Northwest / Jul 16, 2020 / Grizzly Bears, North Cascades, Work Updates
“There has been no way for grizzly bears to get back into that area (North Cascades) on their own, even though there is a lot of really good habitat there.” – Garth Mowatt, Ph.D., Large Carnivore Lead, British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
BY JOE SCOTT, INTERNATIONAL PROGRAMS DIRECTOR AND GRIZZLY BEAR LEAD
Despite claims by the Trump Administration’s Secretary of the Interior while “terminating” North Cascades grizzly bear recovery planning, “No Action”, or “natural recovery”, is not a feasible recovery strategy for North Cascades grizzly bears.
Frustratingly, a wilderness advocacy organization based in Montana has also claimed that natural recovery should be the goal, opposing grizzly restoration in the North Cascades despite extensive evidence that action is the only legitimate path to recovery.
In short, the science is clear: there are no viable grizzly bear populations proximate to the Cascades with enough bears to repopulate the area by simply walking there, a problem compounded by the grizzly’s slow reproductive rate and the obstacle course of natural and human barriers surrounding the North Cascades Ecosystem.
A 2019 letter from prominent U.S. grizzly bear scientists underscores the science and rationale for active bear restoration to advance grizzly recovery in the North Cascades.
But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in biology to understand this point on one’s own. It merely takes a willingness to read status reports on area grizzly populations, a rudimentary understanding of bear ecology and the geography of the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE), and an open mind—one that isn’t clouded by ideological fog.
Or one could take an afternoon’s drive on the highways completely surrounding the North Cascades to grasp the latter point—particularly the heavily-developed Fraser Valley, including a railway and Canadian Highways 1 and 3 as well as Vancouver, B.C. suburbs, and the Okanogan Valley, with U.S. Highway 97 and similar levels of human development, cities and agriculture.
On top of these barriers, the nearest relatively abundant populations of grizzly bears—in B.C.’s South Chilcotin Ranges and the Selkirks in the Rocky Mountains—are more than 100 miles away to the north and approximatly 200 miles to the east.
These are simply not viable source populations for recovery in the mountains of north-central Washington state.
Despite roaming the North Cascades for tens of thousands of years, the isolation from the already low populations of grizzlies in southwest British Columbia (North Cascades Ecosystem fewer than 6 bears, Stein-Nahatlatch north of the Fraser River fewer than 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.
We are working to improve connectivity and the potential for natural recovery through the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, but that’s a long-term program that does not meet the short-term needs of grizzly restoration in the transboundary North Cascades.
But for the Trump Administration and for some hardline opponents from both ends of the advocacy spectrum, it doesn’t seem like this is about science. If it were, those who profess to support grizzly bear recovery in the NCE would agree with the clear need for transplanting a small number of grizzlies into the North Cascades from an area of similar habitat elsewhere (likely Glacier National Park in northwest Montana)—a point of contention that has stalled NCE grizzly bear recovery for nearly 30 years.
That point alone, that natural grizzly recovery has clearly not worked in the North Cascades over the past three decades despite quality habitat, should indicate that “natural’ grizzly reestablishment in the NCE is not a feasible strategy.
No, this is about ideology—pure and simple. This is about pragmatism vs. perfectionism; about working within the world we have vs. the one we wish we had. And it’s about recognizing that windows of conservation opportunity can and will close, because of predictable and unpredictable circumstances. And while it’s certainly not shut yet, the window for action for North Cascades grizzly bears is closing.
It’s common knowledge that we’re in a biodiversity crisis with limited numbers of government initiatives to staunch the bleeding. Restoring grizzly bears to the NCE is one of those initiatives which accomplished, dedicated government biologists and wildlife managers have worked for years to complete—the centerpiece and only hope of which is bear translocations into the North Cascades.
Learn more about how restoration works in our TIME FOR THE GRIZZLY? film by renowned ecologist, bear conservationist and TV host Chris Morgan.
And for added perspective, grizzly bears still only occupy roughly two to three percent of their former range in the lower 48 states—nearly all of those animals in the Greater Rocky Mountains including a handful in the Selkirks of northeast Washington, the exception being the possibly two or three bears remaining in the transboundary North Cascades. Restoring the Great Bear to the North Cascades would increase their occupied habitat to about five percent of the grizzly’s former range in the Lower 48.
The bar for grizzly bear recovery under the Endangered Species Act is low—viable bear populations in six federally-designated Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones, including the North Cascades—owing to a lack of large contiguous, wild habitats elsewhere, as well as human tolerance for the animal.
It’s extremely troubling that we can’t even meet this low bar, owing to a small but very vocal opposition to large carnivores in general, and from ideological purists whose assumption is that we will have a reversal of human activities in our region and hundreds of years to recover grizzlies in the NCE.
We can all agree on how magnificent of an animal grizzly bears are. As an icon of the wild, restoring these bears to their natural habitat in the North Cascades, one of the wildest blocks of land left in the Lower 48, is the right thing to do. We must put our ideologies aside and do what science shows is the only way to give this population a chance at recovery.