Grizzlies gain ground

Recovery efforts flourish, but challenges still loom.

 

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.

yellowstone grizzly
A grizzly in Yellowstone National Park. Credit Kim Keating / USGS.

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."

grizz map
Grizzly bears' historic range, current range and habitat identified by the Center for Biological Diversity as suitable for grizzly recovery.

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.