A new dawn on the horizon for North Cascades Grizzly Bears

Caroline Reusch

Jennifer Harrop

Patrick Scordato

A grizzly bear mom and her cubs on the shores of a lake. The National Park Service and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service have drafted plans to reintroduce at least 200 bears in the Northern Cascades (National Park Service [NPS], 2017, p. 4).

 

 

A female grizzly bear roams the vast forested wilderness of the Northern Cascades, a rich dark brown in color with white tipped hairs glistening in the sun on her back. The large behemoth treads through overgrown vegetation in hopes of finding her next meal of succulent berries, scurrying insects, or the fresh meat of a juvenile moose. Two bear cubs trot along side her, eager to see what she will teach them next. The mom is determined to feed her children, and is willing to relentlessly protect them in the fight for survival. The snow capped Mount Baker sits high above the animals in the vast North Cascade bushland. Respected and revered by many for their incredible strength and speed, grizzlies are deep-rooted into Native American folklore, and into the minds of North Americans as a stoic beast. These animals are a symbol of the great American Pacific Northwest and play a key role in the ecosystem.

Grizzly bears contribute to shaping and stabilizing the ecosystems in which they live through seed dispersal, increasing nutrient availability, and controlling prey populations (Western Wildlife Outreach [WWO], n.d.b; Defenders of Wildlife, n.d.; Tardiff & Stanford, 1998; Berger, Stacey, Bellis, & Johnson, 2001; Willson & Gende, 2004; Levi et al., 2012). Grizzly bears are essential to seed dispersal throughout the forest by feeding on berries (WWO, n.d.b; Willson & Gende, 2004). The seeds pass through their digestive system without being broken down and are dispersed through their scat, which acts as a fertilizers for the seeds to germinate (WWO, n.d.b). In southeastern Alaska, brown bears, the species of bear grizzlies belong to, eat a considerable amount of berries in the summer (Willson & Gende, 2004). A single bear scat can contain 2-5 different types of seeds, making bears an important player in the dispersal of seeds (Willson & Gende, 2004).  

Grizzlies will also forage for tree roots, plant bulbs, and ground squirrels (WWO, n.d.b). In doing so, they disturb the soil, increasing nitrogen availability for microorganisms and plants. With a greater availability of nitrogen in soils, plants can develop properly and competition between microorganisms and plants for nitrogen decreases (Tardiff & Stanford, 1998). Grizzlies also feed on Pacific salmon as they enter freshwater streams to spawn. After capturing the salmon, grizzlies typically move to land to feed, distributing the remains of the fish to various vertebrate and invertebrate scavengers several hundred meters from the stream (Levi et al., 2012). These remains can provide up to a quarter of the nitrogen plant communities in the surrounding area need to develop (Levi et al., 2012).

Though grizzlies are omnivorous animals, meaning they eat both plants and animals, they are also large predators that help control prey populations (WWO, n.d.b, Defenders of Wildlife, n.d.). In Grand Teton National Park,WY, grizzly bears and wolves were eradicated from the area 65-70 years ago (Berger et al., 2001). When an ecosystem is intact, such as in Alaska and Yukon, grizzly and wolf predation on moose is intense, with up to 90% of juvenile moose being killed annually (Berger et al., 2001, p. 948). However, with the two top predators eliminated from the Grand Teton ecosystem, moose populations skyrocketed and now feed excessively on large quantities of woody shrubs and young saplings, decreasing plant density in the region (Berger et al., 2001). A decrease in plant density results in a decline in migratory bird populations, including gray catbirds and MacGillivray’s warblers (Berger et al, 2001; WWO, n.d.b). Yet, when grizzly bears are present, the surrounding environment benefits from their influences, becoming an overall healthier ecosystem. Sadly in the present North Cascades, extensive historical eradication of the grizzly bear causes the population to be a morsel of what it once was, and the ecological benefits that come with grizzly bears have been lost.

The historic homerange of the grizzly bear once stretched from Alaska to Mexico, covering much of the western United States. In the lower 48 states, grizzly populations exceeded 50,000 before settlers moved west across the Great Plains (Defenders of Wildlife, n.d.; US Fish and Wildlife [USFW], 2017). In the Northern Cascades of Washington, unregulated hunting and commercial trapping decimated grizzly populations for more than a century (WWO, n.d.a.; Rice, 2011). Trapping records indicate the Hudson Bay Company shipped 3,788 grizzly bear hides from trading posts in the Northern Cascades between 1827 and 1859 (WWO, n.d.a.). By 1860, there was an estimated 350 grizzlies left in the Cascades, down from the historical population of 1,000 (Rice, 2011, para 8). From 1900 to 1967, 66 bears were killed due to unregulated hunting (Rice, 2011, para 8). With a current estimated population of 5-20 resident bears, the Northern Cascades grizzlies are isolated and spread far from one another, and with a slow reproductive rate and restricted gene pool it has become nearly impossible for the population to rebound naturally on its own (Northern Cascades Conservation Council, n.d.; WWO n.d.a; Lewis, 2018).

In modern times, the Northern Cascade grizzly bear population continues to dwindle due to the extremely low population caused by hunting, and suggests the natural recovery of the grizzly bears in the region to be unlikely (Romain-Bondi et al., 2004). Due to past hunting pressures, grizzly bear populations in the Northern Cascades are experiencing a decrease in genetic health, which in turn increases the chances of extinction (Kamath et al., 2015). A low population makes it harder to reproduce due to the difficulty of finding a mate and low social interaction (Lande, 1988). When reproduction does occur, bad mutations (changing the structure of a gene) can get stuck in the breeding population (Lande, 1988). With poor traits being passed to offspring there is a decrease in environmental adaptability making survival harder (Lande, 1988). The low population and decreased genetic health makes the natural recovery of grizzly bears in the North Cascades unlikely due to high chances of extinction (Romain-Bondi et al., 2004). With the chance of a natural recovery so low, conservation efforts are the only way to rebound the Northern Cascades grizzly bear population from the brutal eradication caused by humans (United States Department of the Interior [USDOI], United States Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS], National Park Service [NPS], 2017, p. v). Fortunately, a government plan to reintroduce a stable population to the North Cascades currently resides in the drafting stages.

In the winter of 2015, The National Park Service [NPS] and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS] drafted a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears into the North Cascade Ecosystem in the state of Washington. The Grizzly Bear Restoration Program, has progressed into the drafting stages. The proposals put forth in the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan seek to restore a stable population of at least 200 grizzly bears through capture and release into the North Cascades Ecosystem (National Park Service [NPS], 2017, p. 4) In March of 2018, the Department of the Interior officials announced the North Cascades grizzly recovery Final Environmental Impact statement would be completed in the late summer of 2018 (Chaney, 2018).

An effective proposal put forth in the Grizzly Bear Restoration Program is the Ecosystem Evaluation Restoration. Under this proposal, the NPS and the USFWS would evaluate the ecosystem in which they plan to restore the grizzly bear population (NPS, 2017, p. 5). In order to do this, ten grizzly bears would be released at a single remote site in the North Cascades Range over the course of two years, and these bears would be monitored over four years as they interacted with each other, their new habitat and the surrounding ecosystem (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. 27). NPS and USFWS would also record and determine the cause of any human conflicts, if any, that occurred during those years.

After observation of the initial grizzly bear population in the NCE, a decision would be made regarding how the Grizzly Bear Restoration would proceed further (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. 27). Results of this study could either halt the program entirely or give convincing evidence to continue to move the program in a forward direction, using the Incremental Restoration Plan outlined in the Environmental Impact Statement  (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. 27). Conducting this study could quiet arguments against restoring grizzly bears to the area surrounding the North Cascade. However, the proposal is not without its obstacles: the multi-year analysis of the environment could cost $700,000, and the Park Service is reluctant to foot the bill entirely (Cornwall, 2014). The Ecosystem Evaluation Restoration proposal is expected to achieve the restoration goal of approximately 200 grizzly bears within 60 to 100 years (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. iv).

Out of all proposals put forth, the evaluation alternative plan could promote the highest survival rate of translocated bears through its monitoring and adaptive management plan. The no-action alternative proposed would not likely achieve restoration goals. The biological consensus is that grizzly bears would have difficulty recovering on their own and would require some form of human intervention to achieve reproduction and recovery (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. v). Similarly to the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan, Incremental Restoration would establish a large block of suitable habitat for grizzly bears, but the sustainability of the grizzly bear population would not be monitored as closely, leading to some doubts on its efficiency (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. vi). It is not likely that Expedited Restoration would effectively achieve restoration goals. There is a greater level of trapping effort required under the Expedited Restoration plan, and there would be an increased risk and impact on grizzly bears from capture-related mortality (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. vi). While expedited restoration would take less time, it is unclear whether the population would be sustainable over a long period of time (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. vi).

While the most expensive of the proposals put forth by the NPS and the USFWS, the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan is still the best option moving forward. The extra money put into this plan will be well worth it because this plan will not only help establish a stable grizzly bear population, but all parties that may be affected by the restoration of grizzly populations can be put at ease with the results of the environmental study. As far as other wildlife in the NCE are concerned, the reintroduction of grizzly bears under the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan is expected to result in minimal disturbances and few adverse effects.

The initial release of grizzly bears would result in some disturbances to denning mammals, but will be limited to a five-to-seven day period in the late summer and early fall of the first two years (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. vii). There would be low incidences of grizzly predation on deer due to the low initial number of grizzlies released (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, pp. vi-vii). There may be potential adverse effects on black bear and other predator species due to expected competition, but these interactions are not expected to affect population levels of other species (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. vii). Other proposals put forth would result in similar effects on other wildlife, but without the initial research done within the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan, it would be difficult to say with confidence disturbances and effects would be minimal (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. vi). Humans may also be worried about the impacts of grizzly bears on another group of animals, livestock.

Increased conflict due to the reintroduction of grizzly bear populations in the NCE can still be a major concern for ranchers. For instance, the reintroduction of wolves in the west have caused increased prey on family livestock (Kaufman, 2011). The wolf population spread beyond the wilderness area during the reintroduction and livestock kills began to increase putting the livelihood of ranchers at risk (Kaufman, 2011). There could be concern a similar situation would occur with the reintroduction of grizzly bears in the Northern Cascades. The nearness of sheep and cattle pastures to a bear’s habitat increased the odds of human-bear conflicts by 14.6%, 15.6%, and 16.4%  during the spring, summer, and fall seasons (Wilson et al., 2006, p. 52). The nearness of livestock to bear shows the risk of reintroducing grizzly bears near ranchers. More grizzly bears in the region may cause great concern for ranchers due to increased likelihood of livestock kills and eaten crops, but the reintroduction plan will cause minimal conflict due to the expansiveness of the NCE.

The NCE is one of the largest continuous areas of federal land in the lower 48 states (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, n.d., para. 1). The area encompasses 9,800 square miles in north central Washington stretching from the Canadian border to central Washington (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, n.d.). 88% of the Northern Cascade Ecosystem is federal land (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, n.d., para. 1). Northern Cascades National Park superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich stated 94% of North Cascade ecosystem is wilderness, and will provide plenty of food and habitat for the grizzlies (Wheat, 2018, para. 27 ). 80-85% of a grizzly bear’s diet is berries and U.S Forest Service biologists have identified 120 shrubs grizzly bears can eat (Flatt, 2017, para. 19). The plentiful shrubs in the region will allow grizzlies to forage in the wilderness, and reduce the chances of grizzly bears venturing near ranches. The ruggedness of the area also provides large amounts of secluded wilderness for the grizzlies to roam (Flatt, 2017).

Figure 1 shows potential grizzly bear release zone in the Northern Cascades. The area outlined in black represents the North Cascades Ecosystem, and the red outlines within the ecosystem shows potential release areas. The blue circle with ‘1’ in it within the southernmost release zone portrays the average range of a female grizzly bear (70 sq. mi.). The pink circle with ‘2’ in it towards a north release zone represents the maximum average range of a male grizzly bear (500 sq. mi.). As seen in the figure, the home ranges of the bears do not cross the boundaries of the North Cascades Ecosystem, and the male range barely exceeds the boundaries of the release zone.  The female range does not cross the boundaries of the release zone. As supported by Figure 1, the large area of the North Cascades Ecosystem will provide grizzly bears enough area and resources to thrive preventing livestock kills or eaten crops (Wheat, 2018).

Figure 1. A map of the North Cascades Ecosystem outlined in black. Potential release areas are outlined in red. The average home range of female grizzlies are represented by the blue circle, and the maximum average range of a male grizzly bear is represented by the pink circle.

 

If conflict does occur though, organizations, such as the Defenders of Wildlife, reimburse ranchers for verified livestock that have been killed by grizzly bears (Defenders of Wildlife, n.d.). The Defenders of Wildlife also try to proactively reduce conflict through tools and techniques such as electric fencing and livestock guard dogs (Defenders of Wildlife, n.d.). These coexistence methods provide solutions that protect rancher’s livelihood and allow grizzly bear recovery (Defenders of Wildlife, n.d.). Another industry that may concerned with reintroduction of grizzly bears is the logging industry.

Logging companies in the North Cascades may fear the reintroduction of grizzly bears will further reduce their harvesting area. Old growth forest and spotted owl conservation resulted in a 95% decrease in the amount of timber available for harvesting (Foster, 1995, para. 15). These conservation efforts in recent times have led to very difficult economic times for logging companies and communities (Foster, 1995). Increased reservation of conservation land due to the presence of grizzly bears may concern logging communities. Despite these concerns, the NCE will provide vasts amount of land for the grizzly bears to forage.

Numerous policies that  protect quality bear habitat are already in place in the Northern Cascades and Washington. The Northwest Forest Plan manages 24.5 million acres of public land in Washington, and prohibits logging on 88% of the land (Northern Spotted Owl Conservation, n.d., All Jurisdictions, para. 1 ). In 1996, management practices started to protect 60,000 miles of streams in Washington, and the policy change set aside an additional 764,300 acres of riparian habitat or buffer zones on non-federal land (Northern Spotted Owl Conservation, n.d., Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Areas, para. 3). The Habitat Conservation Plan also ensures the protection of habitat on nearly 2 million acres of state and privately owned land (Northern Spotted Owl Conservation, n.d., Habitat Conservation, Plan, para. 1). Previous conservation efforts protect grizzly bear habitat and provide plenty of habitat the bears will be able to live on when introduced. Along with logging companies, Northwest residents and outdoor enthusiasts may be hesitant to support reintroduction of grizzly bears due to the perceived conflict and danger.  

Restoring grizzly bears under the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan could result in adverse impacts on communities and public safety due to the increased potential for human-grizzly bear conflicts. Any increase in a grizzly bear population in an ecosystem inherently increases the chances of human-grizzly bear conflicts; however, the increased potential is still very low (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. x). The potential for human-grizzly bear conflicts is expected to remain low throughout the process of reintroduction because the number and density of grizzly bear populations would remain small. It is also expected to remain low because the location of the release site is far away from main visitor areas, which mitigates the potential for interactions (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. ix). Any adverse effects that may occur due to intermittent human-grizzly bear populations would be offset by the benefits of grizzly bears being restored to the NCE.

Grizzly bear encounters in the wild may also instill fear into outdoor enthusiasts due to headlines and instances when bears have attacked humans (Rennicke, 1995). For outdoor enthusiasts, education and alertness on grizzly bears significantly reduce the chance of any injuries or fatalities (Rennicke, 1995). Constant noises and keeping as much distance from the bear if spotted reduces the chance of conflict (Rennicke, 1995). In Yellowstone, an approximate risk of a grizzly bear attack occurred every one in every 2.7 million visits (Bear-Inflicted Human Injuries & Fatalities in Yellowstone, 2017, para. 1 ). In 88 years, there’s been 82 grizzly and black bear related deaths, which is close to the annual number of people killed by lightning (Rennicke, 1995, para. 11 ). There is not to much to fear from bears if proper precautions are taken. As stated by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game biologist Derek Stonorov, “[Grizzly bears] are not out to get somebody. They are not even particularly aggressive. It is difficult for them not to move away from people or other bears. If we look at them without preconceived notions, they are not at all a fearsome creature” (Rennicke, 1995, para. 19). Alongside human-bear conflict, the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan will provide an opportunity to research bears impact on the ecosystem.

It will take more time and money, but the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan will provide useful data on the impacts a sustainable population of bears would have on an ecosystem over a short period of time (NPS, 2017). If at the end of the ecosystem study—approximately four years—there is a conclusion that the grizzly bear has a negative impact on the environment, or there are too many human conflicts and obstacles, then the proposal would be halted (NPS, 2017). If there is a conclusion that the reintroduction of the grizzly bear is beneficial, then NPS and USFWS would be able to move on to the Incremental Restoration Plan (NPS, 2017). The Incremental Restoration Plan is another option for restoring grizzly bear populations in the NCE; however, it is a better option as the “second step” of the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan. Under the Incremental Restoration Plan, the NPS and USFWS would release 5-7 grizzlies into the NCE each year for roughly 10 years, with a goal of establishing an initial population of 25 grizzly bears (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. iv). This initial population of 25 grizzly bears would be added onto the 10 grizzly bears already established in the NCE under the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan. Once this initial population is established, small numbers of grizzly bears would continue to be released over time in order to address mortality, population and demographic trends, genetic limitations, or to adjust the population’s sex ratio to improve reproductive success (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. iv). The population would continue to be evaluated, and the restoration goal of 200 grizzly bears is expected to be met within 60 to 100 years (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. iv).

If grizzly bears were transferred to the North Cascade Range ecosystem without proper research done beforehand, there may be negative effects that will be difficult to undo. The self sufficient populations could cause an increase in conflicts between grizzly bears and humans that further damage grizzly bear populations. Despite the possible negative impacts, there is prevailing evidence the reintroduction of large carnivores strengthens the species population and causes a cascade of ecological benefits (WWO, n.d.b; Defenders of Wildlife, n.d.).

By reintroducing grizzlies to the Northern Cascades, the population will strengthen in time and eventually stabilize. The Ecosystem Evaluation Plan will allow for a small number of bears to be released overtime, allowing them to become acclimated to their environment and eventually reproducing (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. 27). By releasing such a small number, researchers hope to observe how the bears become accustomed to their new environment and record any negative impacts they may have on the ecosystem or human development (USDOI, USFWS, NPS, 2017, p. 27). If the initial evaluation is successful, then more bears will eventually be released in the Northern Cascades. A similar reintroduction plan of brown bears released ten individuals in the Italian Alps, all of which adapted well to their environment (Tosi et al., 2015). Over the course of 10 years the brown bear population increased, with 34 reproductive events and a total of 74 cubs born (Tosi et al., 2015, p.13). Observations from 2013-2015 also showed a population growth of 15.6% (Tosi et al., 2015, p.13). The reintroduction of brown bears in the Alps is similar to the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan: a small number of bears released in prime habitat, allowing for reproduction, and a resultant increase in population. An increase in the population leads to an increase in genetic diversity, which in turn reduces the risk of North Cascades grizzly bear extinction (Kamath et al., 2015). With proper management and monitoring, the grizzly bear numbers in the Northern Cascades can increase, strengthening the gene pool and the stability of the population.

The reintroduction of a large carnivore, such as a grizzly bear, will produce widespread ecological impacts (WWO, n.d.b; Defenders of Wildlife, n.d). Though the impacts grizzlies will have on the Northern Cascades is unknown, the benefits of other large predators, such as the gray wolf, are well understood and can be used to gain insight on the potential ecological benefits in the Cascades. Assessing impact gray wolves have on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem can be used to better understand what the reintroduction of the grizzly bear may be like. Due to the extensive hunting, no gray wolves roamed Yellowstone National Park since the 1920s, until the reintroduction of the species in the park (1995 Reintroduction of Wolves, 2017). In 1995, Yellowstone released eight gray wolves, relocated from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada (1995 Reintroduction of Wolves, 2017). The park reintroduced 31 more grey wolves by 1996 (1995 Reintroduction of Wolves, 2017).

Since 1996, the reintroduction of the gray wolves created a domino effect of ecological benefits (Weiss et al., n.d). The reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone changed elk foraging behavior due to predation resulting in increased growth of willows and aspens (Weiss et al., n.d). The willows and aspens provide pivotal areas for migrant birds to nest, increased root strength and soil stabilization near streambeds, and provided food and building material for beavers (Weiss et al., n.d). The cascade of benefits all started with the presence of a healthy gray wolf population. Numerous other ecological benefits occured due to the reintroduction including providing increased food sources to scavengers, and the predation of unhealthy elk have increased foraging resources to healthy, reproductive elks (Weiss et al., n.d). The effects of gray wolves on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were unknown until they were reintroduced and the impacts studied (Klein, 2018). This can also be said for grizzly bears in Northern Cascades, with no clear evidence about how the Cascades functioned before grizzly bears were present, the only way to understand their ecological impact is to evaluate and study a reintroduced population. As demonstrated by the gray wolf, the reintroduction of a species, such as grizzly bears, will create a cascade of ecological benefits strengthening the overall ecosystem in the Northern Cascade, and the Ecosystem Evaluation Restoration plan will allow these possible benefits to be assessed.

To conclude, historical declines in grizzly bear populations and poor genetic health put the grizzly bears of the Northern Cascades at risk of local extinction. The reintroduction of grizzly bears through the Ecosystem Evaluation Plan in the Northern Cascades will booster the population and strengthen the ecosystem, while also rightfully restoring the majestic bear to its native habitat. A balanced coexistence, which reduces conflicts between ranchers, logging companies, and the general public, and highlights the benefits of grizzlies in the ecosystem can be reached with the right management plan and an educated mindset. The Ecosystem Evaluation plan will assess grizzly bears positive and negative impacts on the ecosystem and human bear conflict. With the Ecosystem Evaluation Restoration plan, grizzly bears can be successfully reintroduced to their historic natural range of the Northern Cascades creating a stronger ecosystem and grizzly bear population.

 

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Evan

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