This year, the National Park Service announced that it is embarking on a process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to determine exactly what grizzly bears in the North Cascades National Park and throughout north central Washington need to recover to healthy population levels.
For grizzly bear biologists, managers, researchers and conservationists, this announcement is welcome news indeed. Grizzly bears have been mostly absent from the region since the early 1900s due to persecution and over-harvest for their pelts. Today, there are less than a handful of bears in the entire region. In fact, the North Cascades grizzly population is the most imperiled grizzly bear population in the U.S. The work to bring grizzlies back from the brink of extinction began no less than 40 years ago, when the bear was listed as threatened in the lower 48 states in 1975.
A lot has happened since then.
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While the nation experienced 80s glam, 90s grunge, the birth of the information age, and the dawn of the new millennium, grizzly bear experts were hard at work. In 1982, the first recovery plan for grizzly bears was completed. In 1983, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Working Group came together to map out how and where they could bring back viable grizzly bear populations and conserve their habitat. The group identified six key geographical areas, including the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE) in Washington. By 1993, the recovery plan was revised, made stronger by more than a decade of research and interagency coordination.
Finally in 1997, the Interagency Working Group wrote the recovery plan chapter for the North Cascades Ecosystem Recovery Area, detailing how the public could be involved in the process of restoring these iconic animals to the landscape. On Friday, February 13th, 18 years later, I read the press release from the National Park Service that said it was, at long last, ready to get started. “It’s finally time,” I found myself whispering to every future grizzly bear that will call the North Cascades home.
The North Cascades is bear nirvana. It contains the largest patches of federal land in the lower 48 (no small feat), which means large, connected patches of bear habitat. About 41 percent of the land is designated wilderness or national park. Over 70 percent has no motorized access, keeping the habitat natural and safe for wildlife like bears. With rugged alpine meadows, safe passage between bear habitats, bountiful berries and delicious fish for food, and deep snowpack for denning, the “griz,” as the bears are affectionately called, have it made.
You may be asking yourself, if it’s such a great habitat, why aren’t there more bears there now?
North Cascades grizzlies face the same challenges that other grizzly bear populations do. Habitat fragmentation is a major problem, since grizzlies rely on large areas to forage for food. Their low reproductive rate is another issue. Grizzly bear moms give birth for the first time at seven years old and generally have one to two cubs every four years, so it can take a long time to build a stable population. Grizzlies also don’t move very far from their birthplace, so bumping into other bears to start a new family can take a very long time. Bears in the North Cascades also face the unique challenge of an extremely small population that isn’t connected to any others. Unable to interact and breed with other populations, these grizzlies can develop genetic risks that decrease their long term survival and make their population less resilient.
Given the extra pressure, it’s somewhat amazing that North Cascades grizzlies have been able to hang on for the last 40 years, patiently waiting for action while they teeter on the edge of existence. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the NCE grizzly bear’s status under the Endangered Species Act should be changed from threatened to endangered; however, their status remains the same two years later. Sadly, there has only been one observation of a single grizzly bear in the region in the last 10 years. However, the terrain is difficult for humans to traverse, and grizzly bears are notoriously private. It’s likely that there are more bears out there – and we need to help them.
Grizzly bears would have never left the North Cascades if it weren’t for humans’ mistakes. We are responsible for the unsustainable harvest of their pelts and for thoughtless land use practices that have altered, damaged, and fragmented habitat. So helping the grizzly bear return to this region isn’t just a nice thing to do. Helping the majestic griz return to its rightful place on the landscape and making the ecosystem whole again is the right thing to do to correct the mistakes of the past. We have the opportunity to welcome the grizzly bear back to the North Cascades and do all we can to give it the best shot at a sustainable population in north central Washington. I hope you will join me, Washingtonians, national park visitors, wildlife lovers, and griz fans, in working to recover the grizzly population in the North Cascades, as was promised so long ago. Defenders will be closely involved as these plans move forward, and we’ll keep you posted on new opportunities for you to have a hand in this important work.