Interior pushes North Cascades grizzlies toward extinction

Interior pushes North Cascades grizzlies toward extinction
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With the public lands in the news so much lately, it would have been easy to miss the Interior Department’s abrupt and still unexplained halt to grizzly bear recovery in Washington’s remote North Cascades Mountains. The action may condemn Washington’s dwindling grizzlies to extinction. It’s a big disappointment to biologists and the many Washington residents who have spent three decades trying to help the bears.

The North Cascades Ecosystem, first designated a grizzly bear recovery zone in 1991, is top-rate wilderness. Its centerpiece is North Cascades National Park, one of the nation’s most stunning and least-visited preserves. The park is contiguous with other large protected areas, including the Pasayten Wilderness, Mount Baker Wilderness, Glacier Peak Wilderness, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. It encompasses nearly 10,000 square miles of largely roadless public lands.

A few hours northeast of Seattle, it is a world apart. Several hundred glaciers still cling to sky-scraping mountains, feeding rivers that tumble west to Puget Sound or east toward the Columbia River. Its west-side rainforest hosts plump spruce, cedar and Douglas firs. Eastern slopes are drier, with ponderosa and lodgepole forests rolling off to high desert.


Until Euro-American settlement, the diverse landscape supported abundant grizzly bears and other wildlife. But fur traders, miners and cattlemen did not tolerate grizzlies and shot, trapped and poisoned them with abandon. By the mid-1800s, the Hudson Bay Company shipped a whopping 3,500 grizzly hides from the region. Wanton killing continued nearly until the West’s grizzlies gained federal protection in 1975, but by then sightings were rare.


In the late 1990s federal biologists approved a North Cascades grizzly bear recovery plan, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act. It showed the area offered abundant food, prime denning and other habitat needs, and the securely protected roadless lands grizzlies need. But with fewer than 20 individuals remaining, biologists determined adding bears from other populations was the only way to save them. 

Polling at the time indicated overwhelming support among Washington residents, but public meetings in sparsely populated areas of eastern Washington revealed intense opposition that nearly turned violent. Residents feared grizzlies would wander out of the mountains and attack sheep and cattle grazing on public or private lands, and that Endangered Species Act protections would close access to public lands or stymie economies, even lower property values. Republican state legislators symbolically banned state participation in augmenting the grizzly population.

Ultimately Congress cut funding and biologists focused recovery efforts in the Yellowstone and Glacier National park areas of Wyoming and Montana, with considerable success. Today, those areas host fewer than 1,000 grizzly bears. Their presence improves biodiversity, restores ecological balance, enriches human culture, and contributes to revenue and jobs through lucrative tourism.

Wyoming and Montana residents shared the same concerns some Washingtonians expressed about recovering grizzlies. And while problems still flare, people have adapted to living with bears. Projects such as Montana’s Blackfoot Challenge successfully protect rural lifestyles and economies while also promoting bear-safe practices, including responsible disposal of trash and livestock carcasses and phone trees that enable neighbors to share bear alerts. And when bears do kill livestock, which increased in 2017, residents are eligible for compensation supported by states and conservation groups.

Knowing the same solutions are possible in Washington, Interior Secretary Sally Jewel in 2014 restarted federal efforts to save the dwindling North Cascades grizzlies. A draft Environment Impact Statement was issued in early 2017, garnering 128,000 mostly favorable comments. Officials were analyzing the comments this past December when the Interior Department suddenly ended the project. 

Current Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeEnergy development will likely land one bird on the Endangered Species list Montana lawmakers cheer recommendation to ban mining north of Yellowstone Overnight Energy: Navajo coal plant to close | NC dam breach raises pollution fears | House panel to examine endangered species bills MORE has not commented on the action, and North Cascades officials have only said their orders came from Interior. Absent an explanation, we are left to assume Republicans again favored special interests over science, public opinion, and the good of the public lands. And that the 128,000 citizens who shared their knowledge and feedback through public comments wasted their valuable time.

Meanwhile, a few grizzly bears slumber in dens in the North Cascades. They live among rich resources, but their population and unique genetic make-up are winking out. If they disappear, as Zinke seems to intend, the debate will shift from population recovery to species reintroduction, a much harder sell. And while the mountains will still stand, a great force of wildness and an animal with the right to exist among us will be gone.

Lastly, there’s great irony here, too. Wolves are naturally returning to Washington. Their presence in and around the North Cascades is inevitable, and residents are already adopting many of the same measures needed to coexist with grizzly bears. It makes abandoning grizzlies even more senseless. 

Tim Lydon works in federal lands management in Alaska and is the author of "Passage to Alaska, Two Months Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage."

-Updated Jan. 27 at 11:20 a.m.