Joe Scott remembers when Washington state banned the transportation of grizzlies back in 1995 — he still keeps a copy of the law by his desk and jokes that he uses it as a dartboard from time to time. “It was very emotional,” he says. “I remember getting red in the face testifying (against the law) in front of the state Senate committee. I lost my temper, and the chair just kind of stared at me wide-eyed.”
Scott, international conservation director for the nonprofit Conservation Northwest, has been passionate about large predators for as long as he can remember. So when state legislators introduced that bill, preventing wildlife officials from bringing in new grizzlies to augment the state’s rapidly dwindling population, Scott was outraged.
To others, though, the idea of bolstering grizzly populations is dangerous — and contentious. A proposal to reintroduce bears to Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains in 2000 spurred death threats, and a biologist who suggested bringing new bears to help the population of Washington’s North Cascades was spat on at a public meeting. Now, under the law that Scott testified against, Washington wildlife managers are encouraged to support grizzlies’ “natural regeneration,” but barred from transplanting or introducing them.
So will grizzlies ever regain a foothold beyond Yellowstone and Glacier national parks? This summer, they may be gaining ground: As federal officials move forward with a plan to delist the grizzly in the Yellowstone area, other parts of the West have seen a reinvigorated effort to restore the bruins. In June, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of the Interior identifying 110,000 square miles of habitat in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, California and other places where the bears once roamed and where recovery projects could be implemented. Shortly after, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story imagining grizzlies roaming the Sierra Nevada; one proprietor likened the idea to "bringing back Tyrannosaurus rex."
Then, last week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced they would renew long-stalled efforts to boost populations in North Cascades, where grizzly numbers have dropped to fewer than 20 bears. This fall, work will begin on an Environmental Impact Statement to decide whether to pursue no action, try to boost the population naturally, or transplant bears from elsewhere to introduce new genetic material. Though the last option is the most controversial, some experts argue that given the dire situation, it may be the only way to save the population from entirely disappearing. “This is the only population of (U.S.) grizzlies outside the Rocky Mountains,” Scott says. “That alone should give us some currency.”
Only once before have biologists successfully overcome public opposition and augmented an endangered grizzly population: In 1993, a crew captured a female in British Columbia and released it into the sparsely-populated Cabinet-Yaak mountains of Montana and Idaho. Though the bear managed to birth nine cubs before she was shot by a hunter in 2009, her story illustrates the challenges that bear recovery efforts face in a landscape peppered with human activity. Even wildlife advocate Erin Hauge writes that reintroducing bears to the Sierra Nevada is overly ambitious, given the threats of climate change, habitat encroachment and human encounters.
In Washington, those challenges may be exacerbated by the state’s ban on transporting grizzlies. But for now, Scott is thrilled that after nearly 25 years of working to save the grizzlies of the North Cascades, the wheels are turning, and support both locally and in British Columbia seems strong. “We have an opportunity to make this a resounding conservation success story,” Scott says. “Maybe not in my lifetime but in somebody's lifetime. If we can't do it here, where can we do it?”
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.