Depending on who you are, imagining a grizzly bear roaming the North Cascades can spur thoughts of a gentle giant or a monster foaming at the mouth. To scientists, the idea of a grizzly returning to Washington state is less hyperbole, and more about completing an ecosystem that humans tore apart decades ago.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” said Robert Long, the Woodland Park Zoo’s director of the Living Northwest Conservation Program. “It really comes on the heels and completes something we’ve seen in the North Cascades for the past two decades—that is, the grizzly bear will be the last large mammal species missing from our landscape.”
As Long explained, we don’t always know the full impact a species can have on an ecosystem until we see it in play. That said, we know that inland grizzlies have a diet that largely consists of root vegetables, plants and bugs.
The hope to restore a grizzly population goes beyond Washington State, though. Grizzlies were listed as a threatened species in the lower 48 states in 1975, leading to restoration in places like Yellowstone. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Parks Service has spent decades looking at locations to restore bear populations.
As far back as the early 90s, recovery plans were drafted to re-introduce grizzlies to Washington. No plans have made it to the finish line, with the Department of the Interior abruptly ending a previously approved plan in 2020.
When you look closer at the in-state comments, the support dropped as you got closer to the areas where re-introduction is considered.
“I think the biggest concern really comes back to: ‘Why us? Why now? Why not somewhere else?’”
Wolves have also been blamed for reducing elk populations, which in turn can harm big game hunters.
“You don’t have to have a predator—whether it’s a wolf, a cougar, or a grizzly—right next to your livestock for it to impact an animal,” said Lewison. “They know that that predator is out there. What it does is causes spontaneous abortion of calves, it causes cattle to not get pregnant again, it causes extremely low birth rate. It causes the animals themselves to lose weight due to stress.”
Rep. Newhouse has also filed a bill in Congress that would effectively kill the current efforts to re-introduce grizzlies.
Grizzly bears roamed Washington state for thousands of years prior to their disappearance.
Prior to human involvement, grizzlies were an apex predator that brought balance to the food chain; not only through prey, but in terms of spreading plants.
That impact began to disappear quickly in the 1800s. Documents from the Hudson’s Bay Company show that in a 25-year period, more than 3,000 bear pelts were shipped out of local forts. As furs gained value, bear populations dropped.
In 1967, a hunter shot and killed a grizzly bear in Washington State for the last time. In the years that followed, grizzlies were seen so sparingly people began calling them “ghost bears.”
As Long explains, returning grizzlies to the landscape would make the Pacific Northwest one of the few places anywhere in the U.S. with an intact assemblage of large mammals.
ONGOING EFFORTS TO RE-INTRODUCE GRIZZLY BEARS
That essentially means that a species will be released into a suitable habitat outside the species’ current range, but within its historical range.
Researchers note: “We would expect the number of grizzly bear depredations (attacks on livestock) to be low while the population of bears is small. However, depredation could increase as the population grow.”
The efforts to re-introduce grizzly bears has been an ongoing effort since the 1970s. In 1975, the grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Scott Schuyler, the policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe, which is within the recovery zone, has publicly applauded efforts to return the grizzly to its historic range.
GRIZZLY BEAR ATTACKS
The possibility of bear attacks on humans has spurred plenty of public comments in the latest go-around.
Thousands of similar notes have been sent in, and while bear attacks are rare, people will argue over what the word “rare” means.
“When you look at the data for bear attacks on people, it exists,” she remarked. “You can find that data.”
One of the most recent attacks occurred in Canada at the Banff National park – the Calgary Herald reported that the final message from a couple read: “Bear attack bad.”
Those in favor of a re-introduction of grizzly bears are quick to point out that grizzlies and humans co-existed for hundreds of years. The Upper Skagit Tribe stated that pre-contact, their tribe co-existed with grizzlies for 10,000 years.
For more information about upcoming meetings, and links to send in your own public comment on the proposal to re-introduce grizzly bears to Washington state, you can click here. The comment period is already open and runs until Nov. 13.