By Ian Ferguson
If an unarmed human and a grizzly bear enter the thunder dome, we all know the outcome: the bear leaves after an easy meal. With big claws, sharp teeth, the strength of a lion and the speed of a gazelle, grizzly bears are the last animals you want to suddenly encounter on a hike, bike or horseback ride. So why would we want them in our local mountains?
One answer is that grizzlies were here first. Before white settlers hunted them nearly to extinction, grizzly bears thrived in the North Cascades and across much of the northwest. They were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, and a recovery plan with a chapter specific to the North Cascades ecosystem was drafted in 1982. A subsequent five-year study found that the ecosystem was ripe for grizzly recovery, but it’s unlikely the local population will recover on its own because so few grizzlies are left in the region. The last grizzly sighting in the North Cascades was five years ago in south-central BC, and in Washington state the last confirmed sighting in the North Cascades was in 1996. A confirmed grizzly encounter in the area today would make front page headlines across the country; they are ghost bears, as rare as Sasquatch.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) with the help of other government land managers and non-profit agencies are working to recover grizzly bear populations in the North Cascades ecosystem. Earlier this year, they opened a public comment period for residents to voice concerns, ask questions and get information about the recovery process. Multiple alternatives, including taking no action, are on the table for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), but one alternative might include translocating bears to the North Cascades ecosystem from a similar ecosystem where populations are healthy.
Even if the EIS points towards the more aggressive recovery method of translocating bears, wildlife ecologists predict it would take about 100 years for the local grizzly bear population to recover to historical populations. Grizzly bears procreate very slowly. FWS public affairs supervisor Ann Froschauer pointed to recovery efforts in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana as an example of how translocation has been used in other ecosystems.
“They brought in five bears a year over six years for a total of 30 bears, and the population is slowly recovering. No matter which route we decide to take, it’s going to be a very long, slow process,” Froschauer said.
Washingtonians submitted more than 2,000 comments during the public comment period of the scoping phase. Comments were submitted at town meetings and via online forms, emails and letters.
“There were responses on both sides of the issue,” Froschauer said. “A lot of people came to the meetings because they were just interested in learning about grizzly bears. It was a good opportunity to have conversations and share information about bears, the EIS process and the recovery efforts.”
Commenters voiced concerns about safety for hikers, bikers and horseback riders, trail access issues, threats to livestock and agriculture, and socioeconomic impacts. Now, experts and scientists will use those comments and all prior research to determine all the potentialities that need to be covered in the EIS. A draft EIS is expected to be completed next summer, at which point there will be another public comment period. The second round of comments will be taken into consideration for the final EIS, expected to come out in the summer of 2017, after which government land managers will make a decision about which alternative makes the most sense.
A second possible argunment for grizzlies is the wildness they represent. A bear encounter in the wild can be terrifying, exhilarating and potentially deadly, but it is undeniably powerful. In the case of wildlife ecologist Chris Morgan, his first encounter with bears was a formative experience that caused him to change his entire life’s path.
Growing up in England, Morgan was drawn to animals from an early age. He played with ants in his grandma’s backyard as a child, and he had a natural affinity for all living creatures. But as he came up through his sixth form (similar to junior and senior years in American high school), Morgan was on a path toward a very different life’s pursuit: graphic design.
After graduating sixth form in 1987, Morgan traveled to America. He landed a job as a camp counselor at a summer camp in Berlin, New Hampshire, a mill town in the rural northern part of the state surrounded on all sides by national forest. At the time, the town had environmental problems. The Androscoggin river that powered the paper mill was one of the worst polluted rivers in the country. Decades of sprawl had overtaxed Berlin’s public services, and the local dump was poorly managed. Irresistibly attracted to the easy pickings at the dump, black bears were becoming a nuisance.
A biologist came to the summer camp where Morgan was working to talk about his work with local black bears. Morgan was blown away.
“I was amazed. I was like, ‘You can be a bear biologist? That’s the greatest thing I ever heard,’” Morgan recalled. “So I bugged him and he ended up taking me out in the field.”
Morgan helped the biologist tranquilize and relocate 14 black bears that had become dependent on the garbage patch. They radio-collared the bears for monitoring and future research. The experience of working with bears for the first time was enough to change Morgan’s life. When he went back to England, he spent one day pursuing a graphic design degree then dropped out.
“I had discovered my path in life,” Morgan said. “I wanted to be a bear guy.”
Since then, Morgan has traveled all around the world studying bears. He has narrated numerous television documentaries, most recently the PBS Nature series Animal Homes, and went on the Late Show with David Letterman to talk about bear awareness. A Bellingham resident, Morgan co-founded the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project in 2000, later renamed Western Wildlife Outreach (WWO), to educate the public about bears and other top predators.
“We’re an outlet to give scientific, accurate information about bears in a place where that’s been lacking. It’s about listening as much as talking. We work all over the North Cascades, and we listen to people who are opposed to grizzly bears as much as people who want grizzly bears. We take a pretty open-minded, pragmatic approach to it all,”
There are plenty of black bears in the North Cascades, and those who hike in bear country are well-versed in proper habits: make noise as you hike to prevent surprise encounters, hang your food at night at least 50 yards from your tent. Those same principals apply in grizzly bear country, and the takeaway is that avoidance is the best strategy. Luckily, Morgan said, that’s pretty easy to do: grizzlies are elusive, and will usually run in the opposite direction if they see a human. If you do encounter a bear, respectful distance is always the best protocol.
Seeing a bear in the wild is a powerful experience. I remember the first time I saw one up close. I was a teenager, and I happened to be on the next river south from the Androscoggin, paddling a canoe on the Saco river with my friend Josh. A small black bear cub ambled out of the woods 20 yards from our canoe. Stunned, Josh and I drifted closer as another cub emerged behind the first. Josh started to paddle up to the cubs, but I told him what I had been told about bear cubs: the mother is never far away, and she is extremely protective. We stared in awe as we floated past.
The feeling you get when you encounter something totally wild and a little dangerous is unique. It’s a thrill that gets Morgan out of bed in the morning.
“There is nothing else in my mind at that moment except me and that bear, and making sure I’m behaving in the right way, intelligently and respectfully. It thrusts me into the distant and wild past. I think humans in general lack that connection these days, and it’s not good for us. Bears keep you humble, keep you on your toes and make you think for yourself and take responsibility. They make you do all these things just by being in their world,” Morgan said. “Rabbits don’t do that.”
Grizzlies have environmental benefits as well. One benefit is the trophic cascade, the trickle down effect of a top predator. The best example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The wolves culled overpopulated deer communities and altered the behavior of the deer, allowing grasses and trees to recover in the valleys, which brought migratory birds and beavers back to the ecosystem. The wolves also reduced coyote populations allowing rodent populations to recover, which brought back hawks and eagles. Bears benefitted from the rebounding berries as well as from scavenging wolf kills. The recovering vegetation along the banks of the rivers reduced erosion and led to clearer, deeper channels and pools, which benefitted fish. The introduction of a top predator changed the entire ecosystem for the better.
“Ecologically, we’re discovering that these top predators can have a major impact. With grizzly bears, the ecosystem wouldn’t collapse without them, but they do a lot to improve an ecosystem. They dig through soil for grubs, bulbs and tubers which breaks up and aerates the soil, and they fertilize it as they go. A lot of studies have been done on the Alaska coast where you find that a high percentage of the trees are dependent on the nitrogen that bears can bring to a forest in the form of urine and feces, which they brought from the marine environment by eating fish. I used to tell my students when I taught at Western, ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they’re more complex than we can think. You take out one piece of the puzzle, and who knows what the ramifications are down the line,” Morgan said.
There are also tangential benefits that come from protecting a wide-ranging top predator such as the grizzly bear. Protecting and managing the 10,000 square miles of the North Cascades ecosystem so that a viable population of grizzly bears can live there means protecting that land for countless thousands of other species of plants and animals.
“It’s kind of the umbrella effect. Grizzlies want to be where there’s plenty of space to roam, good natural resources, plenty of plants and food for them to eat. An adult male might wander 500 square miles, so they want to be in the heart of those wild places. If you protect them, you by default protect the other species that live there, and a variety of other things we humans value: fresh air, clean water and healthy wilderness,” Morgan said.
Grizzly bears are loners that have learned to shy away from humans, and their need for wilderness makes the North Cascades one of only a few places in the lower 48 that could support a grizzly bear population. Having grown up in England, where the last grizzly bear was killed by the Romans a thousand years ago, Morgan has a heightened appreciation for that fact.
“Britain isn’t wild enough for bears and wolves anymore, but the North Cascades are one of very few places in the world that still is,” Morgan said. “Grizzlies represent something we should all be very proud of here, because it’s a rare thing on the planet these days.” x