Grizzly Bears Are Vanishing From North Cascades National Park

Grizzly Bears
An illustration shows grizzly bears in the North Cascades National Park. Despite several million acres of protected lands, grizzly bears are struggling to survive in the Northwest. Artist: Samuel A. Minick/SAM Illustrations via Bloomberg

Washington’s North Cascades National Park lies at the center of some of the most protected, well-connected wildlife habitat in the Lower 48.

Wolves have started making their way back into the landscape, wandering on their own accord across the Canadian border, just a stone’s throw to the north. Fishers are on a promising road to recovery. Wolverines, lynx and black bear populations are thriving.

It’s a near-perfect cast of characters, except for one gaping void: grizzly bears.

In 1993, a report by a coalition of land and wildlife management agencies estimated that fewer than 20 bears were using the North Cascades; the last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in the region was 15 years ago. One individual was photographed by a camera trap in 2009, but on Canada’s side.

“As more time goes by, you have to wonder what’s happening to the few bears we have left,” says Bill Gaines, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and member of the North Cascades Interagency Grizzly Bear Subcommittee, a group of federal agencies that developed a recovery plan for grizzly bears in the Northwest.

“There’s no geographical connection to more robust populations, aside from a very small number of bears in Canada - - but that population is very much in trouble like ours. The more time goes by, the fewer options we’ll have for bear recovery here. And they probably won’t make it without human assistance.”

Management Plan

Biologists believe the Greater North Cascades ecosystem can support anywhere from 200 to 400 grizzly bears. A general management plan created for Ross Lake National Recreation Area (the park unit adjacent to North Cascades) showed that as much as 92 percent of the landscape qualifies as a “core habitat area” for grizzlies. In comparison, only 70 percent of Yellowstone can be classified as core habitat.

In 2009, Gaines was able to capture a sliver of funding to initiate a three-year survey that would use remote cameras and hair-snagging devices to estimate the number of grizzly bears living in the region today.

But money for all three years hasn’t been secured -- project biologists will have to compete for additional funds for next year. And that’s hard money to come by, when most funds are still funneled into recovery efforts in and around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

‘Priority List’

“We just don’t seem to pop up on the priority list,” Gaines says. “The delisting of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is a hot-button issue, politically and biologically, because they’re trying to show good success for recovery efforts, so it’s a priority. And the idea of starting something new in the northwest without additional money is really difficult.”

Until biologists can get a handle on the population here, detailed recovery actions remain on hold.

Augmentation -- or trapping grizzly bears from healthy populations in northern Canada and transporting them to the North Cascades -- is one option. But it presumes there are already enough bears in the region to mate with any new ones. If only a few individuals remain, reintroduction would be the better route, but it’s expensive, and would require more research and political sway.

“We already saw how controversial wolf reintroduction was in Yellowstone,” says David Graves, regional program manager in the National Parks Conservation Association’s Northwest regional office. “Reintroduction is a much bigger, much more complex process than augmentation.”

Either way, disappearing grizzlies in the North Cascades are likely to affect bears in the Rockies, too.

Mixing Populations

“If the Northwest population is resilient and strong,” says Graves, “we hope they would mix with the Selkirk Mountains population, which would in turn mix with the Rockies population, and then the entire population in the Lower 48 would be geographically and genetically resilient, because no single group would be isolated. And with the help of wildlife corridors, grizzly bears across the country would have the ability to move and adapt as climate change occurs.”

Graves has been working closely with a coalition of conservation groups to push those messages and lobby for support in Congress. Public outreach, he says, is critical, too.

‘Fear of the Unknown’

“There is always fear of the unknown, and the augmentation of grizzly bears will frighten some people,” Graves says. “But if we can teach them about the importance of grizzlies in the ecosystem, and help them understand how grizzlies really act in the landscape, we’re hoping we can damp some of that opposition and possibly grow support.”

“Grizzly bears symbolize our heritage, our history, where our country has come from, and the health of our ecosystems today,” says Chip Jenkins, North Cascades’ superintendent. “Ensuring a sustainable grizzly population in the North Cascades is not just a win for the bears, but a win for the American people, because it demonstrates our ability to act to bring the best of our heritage into the future.”

(Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor of National Parks magazine, where this article originally ran. The opinions expressed are her own.)