National Park Service Considers the Ecological Effects of Restoring Grizzly Population in the North Cascades

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Personal photo: young grizzly at a salmon run in Alaska.

The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear on the U.S. side of the North Cascades was in 2010.  A hiker snapped a photo of a lone grizzly bear silhouetted on a ridge, it’s unmistakable hump confirming for the first time in 50 years, that grizzlies still roam the National Park. Once an animal whose population peaked somewhere around 100,000 and spanned the western US and most of the great plains, there are thought to only be 1,500 Grizzly Bears left in the lower 48. Of this small population, it is speculated that the bear photographed in the Cascades could be just one of 5 bears in the entire 9,800 square miles of the US side of the park.  Knowing this, it’s clear why the North Cascade grizzlies are often referred to as “ghost bears”.

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Historic grizzly range versus the current grizzly range in the lower 48. Source:

Almost five years after that rare photo was taken, the National Park Service has announced that they will begin a three year study on the effects of reintroducing the grizzly bear, which is listed as endangered in the state, to the North Cascades area. If the study proves that the species will ecologically benefit the area and human conflict is low, the National Park Service will begin restoration by transporting grizzlies from Canada into the park.

After watching the video in class that touched on the ecological relationship between salmon and bears, I knew that I wanted to write an entry about the current issues that grizzlies face in the lower 48 and overall what the species lends to biodiversity.  I thought that this article presented a perfect opportunity to talk about the important role that grizzles play in the environment.

Grizzly bears are magnificent distributers and considered by many to be keystone predators.  The David Suzuki Foundation sums up what this means in ecological terms, “Scientists believe that grizzly bears are an essential part of healthy, fully functioning ecosystems in western North America. Known as a “keystone” species, grizzlies are “ecosystem engineers” that help to regulate prey species and disperse the seeds of many plant species, such as blueberry and buffaloberry. They also help to maintain plant and forest health, both by aerating the soil as they dig for roots, pine nuts and ground squirrels, and by moving thousands of kilograms of spawning salmon carcasses into the forest, where trees and other plants absorb their high levels of nitrogen.”

Despite their important ecological role, the notion of transporting grizzlies back into the state scares some people.  Instead of thinking of the species’ effect on biodiversity, they worry more about the possibility of human and bear interactions, which are rare but do not go unnoticed when they happen in places like Alaska and Montana, where bear populations are healthier.  It’s easy to feel like the benefits do not outweigh the risks of reintroducing an apex predator into a heavily populated state.  However, it’s important to look into why the bears disappeared in the first place.  Humans have always posed the largest threat to grizzlies, and they have been listed as a threatened species since 1975.  Some of the threats that have caused their decline include: poaching, habitat loss, getting killed over livestock, collisions with vehicles, illegal hunting, and euthanasia after becoming or being perceived as a human threat.  It is the expansion of humans and out innate fear and misunderstanding of the grizzly bear, that has caused their massive decline.  Although much of the grizzly’s original range has been destroyed, there are still places like the North Cascades that is viable enough for the species to re-inhabit, and I believe that the federal government’s aid in their recovery is not a kindness but an environmental duty, a sort of righting of our wrongdoing.  And in doing so, the government would be doing what is best not only for one species, but for countless others.

But where do we fit in to this? Many of us have become so detached from the natural world, that we forget our role in the environment and in turn, the effects the environment has on us.  Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest believes that grizzlies “not only enrich the ecology but they enrich our lives.”  Filmmaker Chris Morgan has a similar opinion, “Where these iconic animals can live and roam, there is clear air, clean water, and wild country.  What’s good for bears is good for people too.”  

I have a special kind of respect for grizzly bears.  They demand it, simply by being, and to be in the presence of a wild, un-collared grizzly, even from afar, is an experience like no other.  So, when I came across this article, I felt a twinge of hope.  Every time I’m in Washington, it seems odd to me that the bears aren’t there. The habitat is right.  The food source, aside from the decline of wild salmon, is right.  What isn’t right, is the lack of grizzlies.  Of course, I’m not an expert on the Ecology of Washington.  But in three years, we will have a comprehensive look at the advantages and potential disadvantages of restoring the species, as well as the public opinion, which will hopefully land in favor of the grizzly bear.

Even for those who dislike grizzlies or are indifferent to their survival in the lower 48, one thing is for certain…we have reached a point where we have to decide whether we are going to live our lives with or without them.  Without restoration, the few remaining grizzlies in the cascades will not last long.  And in losing them, the entire ecosystem has lost a key element in maintaining biodiversity and the west has lost it’s most magnificent and iconic predator.

– Jay Barry



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