Editor’s note: Story updated on Feb. 8, 2016 to credit Jeremy Williams as the photographer for these photos which were provided to us by Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest.
By Ann McCreary
A regional expert on grizzlies made the case last week for helping the “charismatic and controversial creatures” return to their historical home in the North Cascades.
Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest has spent 20 years researching and advocating for grizzly bears, and shared his thoughts about the proposed recovery of grizzlies in nearby mountains with an audience at the North Cascades Basecamp on Jan. 28.
A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is expected to be released this summer by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem, a 9,800-square-mile area of mostly federal lands in north central Washington and British Columbia.
Grizzly bears are listed as a federally threatened species in the lower 48 states and endangered by Washington state.
Scott said it’s unclear how many, if any, grizzly bears currently live in the North Cascades Ecosystem. Some estimates put the number at about 20, but Scott said he believes it is probably less than 10.
“There are no documented reproducing females. It’s a dire situation,” Scott said.
At one time, grizzly bears roamed from the Arctic to the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. The population of 50,000 grizzly bears in the 1850s was decimated by hunting and loss of habitat, leaving only about 1,500 grizzlies in the lower 48 states today, most of them in the Yellowstone and Glacier park areas.
In addition to the North Cascades, grizzly recovery zones have been designated in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, but efforts to restore the bears is controversial, Scott said.
He said he is often asked if the government intends to “fill” the recovery area with grizzly bears.
“Just because it’s a grizzly bear recovery zone doesn’t mean its going to be filled with grizzly bears overnight,” he said. “The EIS will probably have estimated recovery goals” for the number of bears in the North Cascades, but those goals could take “at least a century” to achieve, Scott said.
The top concern of most people regarding grizzlies is the “safety issue,” Scott said. The bears “generally avoid people” and pose a minimal risk to humans, he said.
Scott presented statistics from Yellowstone National Park from 1980-2015. During that period the park had a population of 600-700 bears and was visited by 100 million people.
During those 35 years the bears injured 34 humans — about one a year. Since 1872, there have been eight humans killed by grizzlies in the park.
For comparison, bison in the park have injured 61 people since 1980, lightning killed five people, and 19 people died from falling into the thermal pools at the park.
While southwest British Columbia supports populations of bears, only about six are believed to live in the area north of the Washington border. Fragmented habitat and barriers like roads impede their ability to move across borders, Scott said.
A “Coast to Cascades” initiative works to help protect and restore grizzlies and their habitat in southwest British Columbia, he said.
Many communities and Native American tribes in Canada have passed resolutions calling for protection and restoration of grizzly bears, he said.
Restoring the bears to the North Cascades will require transplanting bears from other locations, Scott said. The bears would likely be young females that haven’t yet had cubs, and they would be brought to the area just before the winter denning season.
“Hopefully they would emerge in the spring with cubs,” he said. The young females with cubs would be less likely than other bears to try to return to their original home, he said.
The proposed plan for restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades will become more clear when the draft EIS is released this summer, Scott said. The public will have a chance to comment on the proposal at that time.