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The Truth About Bears: The Mystery

Grizzlies vanished from North Cascades National Park five decades ago. Or did they? Our scout joins the search for Washington's elusive mountain ghosts. By Ted Alvarez
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Historically, grizzlies crowded the North Cascades: The Hudson’s Bay Company shipped 3,788 hides from the region between 1827 and 1859. As the Northwest boomed, human pressure pushed the bears away from salmon streams and deeper into the mountains. Even there, grizzlies’ perpetual status as a dangerous bane of ranchers led to unregulated hunting that wiped out the Cascades’ core population of grizzlies by the late 1960s. North Cascades earned national park status in 1968, one year after the Fisher Creek grizzly was killed, and grizzlies earned a spot on the Endangered Species list in 1975. But by then, Cascades grizzlies had already faded to shadows.

Without competition from grizzlies, black bears have thrived here and elsewhere (see maps, page 56), but even so, there’s plenty of food left at the table. Gaines and other bear biologists think the productive landscape of the North Cascades could support as many as 400 grizzlies.

They’ll need human help to reach such density, but other recovery efforts have been successful against long odds. “You get down to certain numbers with limited genetic diversity, and you wonder, Is it too late?” says Scott Fitkin, a Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who’s been at the front lines of bear research and recovery since 1989. “But there have been subpopulations in other ecosystems on the Canadian side of the line that rebounded from one or two females with a little help from natural immigration.”

And grizzlies have a well-documented history of exploiting wilderness nooks and crannies for decades, fooling us into thinking they’ve vanished for good, only to explode unexpectedly out of some wild redoubt. In 1979, 27 years after the “last” grizzly was killed in Colorado, a bow-hunting guide ran into a 400-pound sow. Its pelt and skeleton hang in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

An expanded grizzly presence in the North Cascades would be worth more than camera ops for backpackers. As a keystone predator, grizzlies would affect the overall ecosystem in profound ways. We know the benefits, thanks to successful recovery efforts in the greater Yellowstone and Glacier regions, where about 600 and 950 grizzlies live, respectively.

Grizzlies dig for roots, for example, and research in Montana shows meadows that they’ve rototilled are more productive—it actually affects soil chemistry. Where salmon are present, grizzlies drag carcasses inland, which fertilizes the landscape. In Yellowstone, grizzlies prey on young elk; that has led to a restoration of creekside, low-branch trees and other vegetation that supports migratory songbirds.

If the efforts to restore two species—grizzlies and fishers—are successful, the North Cascades will support the full suite of carnivores that existed in pre-Columbian times. Their presence, by extension, will enhance the biotas—all the natural life systems in the park.

Of course, restoring grizzlies does more than improve the quality of dirt we hike on. It also restores a kind of wildness that can’t exist without them. The Olympics and Cascades each offer similar gifts: head-spinning biodiversity, toothy peaks, and lonely meadows if you know where to look. But when I’m in the Cascades, equivalent ridges etch sharper lines and a familiar green landscape glows with a menace I find intoxicating. Everything changes with the possibility, however remote, that I just missed an old male grizzly digging up plants around the bend, or that a sow and two cubs padded through camp while I slept. As bear researcher Chris Servheen told me, bears breed fear, and fear breeds humility—a humility that makes our wilderness memories burn brighter.

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