Grizzly Bear Yellowstone, ©Sandy Sisti

Bringing Grizzlies Back to the Northwest

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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Grizzly with cubs, © Jim Chagares

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.

Grizzly with fish, © Eric SchmidtThe 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.

Speak Up!

Every voice makes a difference. Tweet at FWS to tell them how much you support restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades!

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22 Responses to “Bringing Grizzlies Back to the Northwest”

  1. Paul Jarzembinski

    Maintain their habitat – ban any additional roads in the region; enroll the bears as an endangered species; ban hunting and try to get your message out to the public that cares about our natural resources so as to generate support and obtain additional funding for programs such as these.

  2. christine mueller

    bring the grizzly bear back into the wild! we need the ecosystem very badly. all wildlife must be protected. save our wildlife, save our planet.

  3. Ray Martin

    I hope that the bears will be left alone there in NC…I’m a bit concerned that it won’t work out…maybe they would be better off in Montana or Wyoming where human population is far less…..

  4. April Louden

    All wildlife needs to be protected. Ban hunting and destroying their habitats. We need to increase the Grizzly Bear numbers in order to preserve their existence.

  5. Ernest R.

    Dear Sir or Madam,

    Please do you can to save grizzy bears,
    I am deeply concered about grizzy bears.

    Sincerely, Ernest R. Chase Jr.

  6. Sue Edwards

    Excellent article Elizabeth! As a resident of Washington State, I have been a supporter of grizzly and wolf reintroduction in our state since the early 70’s and am pleased to see that finally, 17 years after the plan was conceived, reintroduction of the grizzly is finally going to be implemented. @Ray Martin – there is no human population other than a few hikers in the North Cascades – it’s a wild and rugged designated wilderness area. @ Elizabeth – a side note – am sure you are as happy as I am to see the 4 new baby orcas this spring!

  7. Steve T.

    Thanks for Your efforts and keeping us aware and informed. I have seen large Rockies Brown Bear, from a safe distance. Such a wonderful creature. Unfortunately some humans have not advanced enough to understand that these are also, as are we, creatures created of God. We all deserve the pursuit of a peaceful existence and habitat. I hope Your efforts and our continued support of DOW, will give me and others the opportunity to see Grizzley one day and in perpetuity!

  8. Rosemary Lowe

    Any such project needs to create buffers around the park, with No Livestock Grazing or Hunting. Native wild animals, such as the Grizzly will fair much better once we Abolish Public Lands Ranching on Public Lands. While we’re at it, lets get the serial killing hunters off public lands, too. A battle yes, but a fight well worth it for the millions of native animals who suffer and die under the heavy hand of these two (often related) special interest industries.

  9. Water Dragon

    The North Cascades ecosystem needs the grizzly bear.

    Reducing noise impacts is important to their recovery, and often overlooked. Eliminating all helicopters, and motor boats on all waters on the park, reservoirs and the Skagit river, is essential and long overdue.

  10. Michele

    The North Cascades makes sense for grizzly habitat. Protecting our carnivores is patriotic.

  11. Bruce Miller

    bring back the grizzlies to the national parks they deserve to be here

  12. Philip Ratcliff

    It’s important to establish a grizzly population in a place other than the northern Rockies,

  13. Heidi Boehm

    All God’s creatures need to be protected before there are none left!!!!

  14. Patrick Matriscino

    I have seen these beautiful creatures up close and personal….I found it disturbing that they are now threatened. That is absolutely disgusting….like so many other animals in the wild, they have been forced out of their habitat and deprived of their main food sources in many cases. This has to stop…what legacy will we leave for future generations….Let’s DO THE RIGHT THING, and restore them and do it soon !

  15. Mauricio Diaz

    I applaud the National park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Grizzly recovery for the Cascades. The Bears need more areas to recover their numbers and they need wild corridors to connect to other populations. This should also pave the way for wolf recovery in Washington state. When top predators are present in healthy numbers, it improves the ecosystem for all plants and animals including people. Yellowstone is the perfect example!

  16. Bev Roxby

    The Olympics as well as the North Cascades need more top niche predators. Since they are being slaughtered everywhere outside national parks, wolves should be reintroduced within the Olympic National Park and have their numbers strengthened in the North Cascades. A park may protect them, but they have little or no protections anywhere else.

  17. Sharon

    How disappointing it has taken years to finally take this step in the right direction to improve the chances of improving the grizzly population. We continue to ignore the facts to preserve chances for survival for so many species. How shortsighted.

  18. Thomas Petrillo

    Obviously grizzly populations have not returned to the North Cascades. Why? Because there are so very few there. The solution is not that complicated. We need to transplant foreign grizzlies to the region from places that already have sustainable populations. British Columbia would surely give us some bears. Glacier Park in Montana has lots of grizzlies and could certainly part with a few. But get this – Montana is currently planning to open a hunting season on grizzlies as soon as the bears are ESA delisted. How foolish and ghoulish that would be to do that when areas with such excellent habitat as the North Cascades remain uninhabited by those magnificent creatures. Bears brought in from other places would also be a much needed genetic fix for the grizzlies that are hanging on in Washington.

  19. Tom Petrillo

    Obviously grizzly populations have not returned to the North Cascades. Why? Because there are so very few there. The solution is not that complicated. We need to transplant foreign grizzlies to the region from places that already have sustainable populations. British Columbia would surely give us some bears. Glacier Park in Montana has lots of grizzlies and could certainly part with a few. But get this – Montana is currently planning to open a hunting season on grizzlies as soon as the bears are ESA delisted. How foolish and ghoulish that would be to do that when areas with such excellent habitat as the North Cascades remain uninhabited by those magnificent creatures. Bears brought in from other places would also be a much needed genetic fix for the grizzlies that are hanging on in Washington.

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