The forgotten North Cascades grizzly bear

  • Fisher Creek Basin in North Cascades National Park, where the last known grizzly bear killed in the Cascades was shot in 1967.

    Nathan Rice
  • This photo, taken in October 2010, is the first confirmed grizzly sighting in the North Cascades in 15 years.

    Joe Sebille
  • Grizzly sightings are fairly common in Yellowstone, where this bear was spotted.

    Robert Bunch
  • Biologists Bill Gaines and Scott Fitkin look for hair snag locations in an old log cabin 15 miles deep in the Pasayten Wilderness.

    Nathan Rice
  • Forest Service biologist Bill Gaines and technician Aja Woodrow hike deeper into the Pasayten Wilderness to set up hair snag corrals.

    Nathan Rice
  • Forest Service technician Aja Woodrow pours the cattle blood and salmon carcass lure to attract carnivores to the hair snag corral. The lure is liquefied so it doesn't become a food source.

    Nathan Rice

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But biology is never the only consideration, especially when it comes to a controversial species like the grizzly bear. Some folks will never want a large, unpredictable carnivore in their backyard. Ranchers could do without another predator eyeing their livestock, and recreationists worry about trail closures. Safety concerns, however exaggerated, are only made worse by bear attacks; this summer, grizzlies in Yellowstone killed two hikers, the first fatal maulings there since 1986.

"Grizzly bears carry a lot of political baggage," says Fitkin, especially in the Northwest, where people aren't used to them. In 1993, at an infamous public meeting in conservative Okanogan County on the east side of the Cascades, an elderly woman spat on Doug Zimmer, Fish and Wildlife information and education supervisor, before the meeting even started. By the end of the meeting, he'd receive nine death threats, according to Knibb's Grizzly Wars. Even within the state wildlife agency, managers were reluctant to get behind the effort. In 1995, the state Legislature passed an outright ban on bringing grizzlies in from other states to help the Cascades -- a mostly symbolic gesture that can't stop federal recovery work but would keep state biologists like Fitkin on the sidelines.

That same year, the anti-bear political climate likely killed a chance to get money for an EIS. Fish and Wildlife had funding available to study recovery in either the Cascades or the Bitterroot recovery area on the Montana-Idaho border, which had no grizzlies but lies closer to other populations. With much stronger political support for the Bitterroot, the agency diverted funds from the Cascades and finished an EIS to reintroduce bears, only to be shut down when President Bush took office.

Since then, however, opposition from a vocal minority in the Cascades seems to have faded. Public outreach efforts have built a strong base of public support; a 2005 survey by the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project found 86 percent of rural residents west of the recovery zone supported grizzly bear preservation.

But money has been harder to come by. Grizzlies must compete with many other imperiled species; in the Northwest that includes salmon and spotted owls, plus hundreds of endangered species in Hawaii that are funded from the same federal pot. (See infographic)

Though federal funding has tightened over the past decade, the state of Washington stepped up in 2007, when the Legislature offered almost half a million dollars for a Cascades grizzly EIS. That money was matched by another $250,000 from the nonprofit Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, which funds cross-border conservation efforts. But the feds balked. The grizzly recovery office in Missoula could offer only staff time; another critical player, Fish and Wildlife's Region 1 headquarters in Portland, was silent. Agency officials say they didn't ask for grizzly funding because the Washington state office couldn't afford to take it on. The state money, unused, went back to the coffers.

In 2009, Washington Congressman Rick Larsen requested $1 million for grizzly recovery in a federal budget request; that too was ignored in D.C.

"There was a lot of political capital spent to raise that money and nothing came of it," says Scott. "It's a shame."

Chris Servheen is the only grizzly bear recovery coordinator the Fish and Wildlife Service has ever had. His office in Missoula, Mont., is about 10 miles from the border of the Northern Continental Divide recovery area, the country's largest. The Bitterroot recovery area is 20 miles southwest, and Yellowstone is 300 miles southeast. The North Cascades are 400 miles and two states away.

Servheen has been widely recognized for his central role in recovering grizzly bears in the West. When he started his career in 1981, fewer than 200 grizzlies remained in Yellowstone; today, there are 600. With that success, in 2007, his agency removed Yellowstone grizzlies from the endangered species list, only to be sued by environmental groups. In 2009, environmentalists won: A federal court found there were too few protections in place to hand management to the states, and the agency underestimated the potential impact of declining whitebark pines, whose nuts are a major food source for grizzlies. The agency appealed in 2010; the court has yet to decide.

Servheen says delisting Yellowstone grizzlies could free up resources for more threatened populations like those in the Cascades and Selkirks, but litigation is slowing the process, eating up 40-60 percent of his staff's time. It's "a grand waste of recovery money and time, and a net loss to all grizzly bears," he says.

"If the FWS were doing their job, there wouldn't be so much litigation," responds Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups challenging the delisting. "The conservation community has won most of the litigation brought on grizzly bears. That should tell you something."

But Willcox is sympathetic to the agency's financial bind. "Litigation is a result of the agencies not doing their job, and they are not doing their job in part because they don't have the money. It's kind of this vicious cycle. The real answer is that this agency is incredibly underfunded."

Servheen agrees that it all comes down to resources. "If you put money in the North Cascades right now, it will have to come out of someone else's pocket," he says, and that could compromise the hard-earned progress in the Rockies. "The big issue is not cutting this really small pie into pieces," he says. "The big issue is trying to make the pie bigger."

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