Notes from the Field: Wildlife Ambassador Project in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Valley
Conservation Northwest / Sep 29, 2023 / Public Lands, Recreation, Work Updates
The Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence program recently completed its pilot outreach project based near North Bend, WA. Dubbed as the Wildlife Ambassador Project, this effort connects people to the information they need to recreate with respect to wildlife across public lands. The program’s seasonal Wildlife-Recreation Specialist helped to implement the project with volunteers each weekend from July 1 to September 3 at the Middle Fork trailhead and campground. Below are her reflections on her summer of work with Conservation Northwest.
By Alycia Scheidel, Seasonal Wildlife-Recreation Specialist
The Project’s Beginnings
In the summer of 2022, the Middle Fork Campground, a sequestered jewel nestled in the heart of North Bend, Washington, was closed due to a sudden increase in black bear activity. This was fueled on account of the negligence of human beings. Camp-goers who left trash bags and food stores unattended, unknowingly invited bears to share in their weekend memory-making. Stories of campers being frightened from their firesides by bears with a proclivity for hot dogs and baked beans began to circulate. By the time I arrived to help spark the Wildlife Ambassador Project in July of 2023, the reports had grown to near outlandish proportions: bears feasting on abandoned plates whilst campers huddled, fear struck, on the fringes of their campsites, bears clambering into the backs of Forest Service trucks, bears toppling coolers and rifling through their contents. This was concerning not only for the people impacted by the bears’ behavioral shifts but also for the longevity and overall health of the bears and other wildlife. Bears who become food conditioned (begin to associate people with food) are often euthanized for the public’s safety. Fortunately, the “problem bears” of 2022 in the Middle Fork were spared that fate, but their future remained wildly uncertain.
Middle Fork Snoqualmie River
Due to its accessibility and proximity to Seattle, the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie attracts hundreds of recreation enthusiasts each weekend. From the novice hiker to the seasoned backpacker, the snaking river and craggy granite peaks offer respite from the otherwise chaotic nature of human living, and invite those who cross its borders of un-tempered wilderness to slow, to breathe, to soak in the miraculous existence of nature. This great exodus from the weekly mundane comes with a cost, however.
According to a report released by the Tulalip Tribes in 2021, recreation in the Seattle area had doubled in the past eight years. In 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, popular hikes in the Mt. Baker- Snoqualmie National Forest were documented to have experienced over 1,500 recreationists on a single given day. Compiled by Home Range Wildlife Research, Conservation Northwest released a report in 2022 to synthesize all the research to date on the impacts of recreation on wildlife in Washington state. The results came with little surprise: recreation, whether it be hiking, mountain biking or Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) activities, can have a drastic impact on wildlife and their patterns. Species like cougars, black bears and elk face disturbance, spatial displacement, and behavioral changes due to increased and more widespread human presence on public land. Animals that might normally be active during the day are often forced to become nocturnal or crepuscular (active at twilight) to avoid humans. Species like black bears are also more susceptible to collisions with vehicles and, as became painfully apparent in the Middle Fork, to the temptations of insecure human food and garbage.
The Wildlife Ambassador Project formally began operations on July 1, 2023. This project was a collaboration between Conservation Northwest, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the Snoqualmie Tribe and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, to address the many challenges recreation poses on wildlife and their habitats, and to encourage the public to exercise “respectful recreation.” Each weekend, from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., I, along with volunteers, set up a table at the Middle Fork trailhead with information and resources and engaged with the public about all manner of topics pertaining to wildlife in the area. We also made daily trips to the Middle Fork Campground to engage with campers about proper food storage. Our audience covered a wide and diverse range: from trail runners to mountain bikers, toddlers to seniors, Spanish and Mandarin speakers, Capitol Hill dwellers and North Bend locals. Our outreach resources included food storage examples (bear canisters and hangs), bear spray demonstrations, black bear behavioral information, photographs and videos of local wildlife, a black bear quiz, kids’ activity sheets, and every PNW hiker’s most coveted prize: stickers! We also produced a one-of-a-kind bandana, in collaboration with the Snoqualmie Tribe, that included native plants, animal tracks, and the Lushootseed words for each animal.
Our pool of volunteers was diverse and wide-reaching. Each weekend, at least one member of the Forest Service offered their time and expertise to help answer questions and educate the public about bear awareness. Other volunteers ranged from high school students to financial advisors. All were fueled by a deep desire to see wildlife thrive.
Overall, the project was incredibly well received and served to fill an important gap in the public’s understanding of wildlife and its impacts on various species. It was little surprise, but the majority of questions centered around bears, their presence, and the levels of risk they do or do not pose to recreationists. These questions presented great opportunities to correct misconceptions and disperse facts and behavioral information. Each day I encountered individuals who were surprised to learn about the presence of black bears and either knew nothing about steps to take in an encounter or had been given misleading information in the past. Something I made a point to stress, both with the volunteers and the public, was that concerning encounters with predator species are incredibly rare, and the average sighting of them should be enjoyed and celebrated. Much of the existing bear safety literature takes a fear-mongering approach to encounters with bears, which only serves to instill greater misunderstanding and lack of empathy. With that in mind, I was given the opportunity to help create a new informational brochure that included facts, as well as an explanation on food conditioning and the systemic risks it poses to both humans and bears.
There is truly a wealth of things I could say about this project, its successes and impacts, but perhaps those are notions best served for a future day. I believe it will suffice to say that this is sacred work, this nurturing of relationships with our other-than-human kin, the gentle yet firm reminder that we are sharing time and space with species who have resided here long since the dawn of mankind. As the borders of the “civilized world” expand, pressing into realms of shrinking wilderness, the need for wildlife advocates, for ambassadors, grows. I am eager to see where this project will go in future seasons; the possibilities for its growth and expansion are limitless. It has been a divine privilege to help foster these infant beginnings, an opportunity for which I will forever remain humbled and grateful.