North Cascades' Disappearing Grizzlies

Wildlife biologists argue for reintroduction to augment Washington's dwindling grizzly bear population

Bet you didn't know this: Washington has grizzlies. It just doesn't have many—the last time anyone spotted a genuine griz in the North Cascades was 15 years ago. While wildlife biologists think the population still exists, the members number probably less than 20. Surprising news, given that the area is remote enough to support astonishing recoveries for wolves, lynxes, and wolverines.

This is especially disheartening since the North Cascades represents some of the best grizzly habitat in the Lower 48; wildlife biologists think the region could support as many as 200-400 individuals. But they won't be able to make it on their own: The nearest breeding population is a similarly embattled group on the Canadian side of the border, and it's unlikely the current residents have the genetic strength to make it on their own.

Wildlife managers aren't going to take it lying down. They've offered reintroduction plans, but often get overshadowed by grizzly-superstar parks like Yellowstone and Glacier. Here's U.S.F.S. wildlife biologist Bill Gaines, a member of the North Cascades Interagency Grizzly Bear Subcommittee:

“We just don’t seem to pop up on the priority list,” Gaines says. “The delisting of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is a hot-button issue, politically and biologically, because they’re trying to show good success for recovery efforts, so it’s a priority. And the idea of starting something new in the northwest without additional money is really difficult.”

Despite reintroduction controversy elsewhere (lookin' at you, Yellowstone wolves) North Cascades superintendent Chip Jenkins thinks the idea is a good one:

“Grizzly bears symbolize our heritage, our history, where our country has come from, and the health of our ecosystems today,” says Chip Jenkins, North Cascades’ superintendent. “Ensuring a sustainable grizzly population in the North Cascades is not just a win for the bears, but a win for the American people, because it demonstrates our ability to act to bring the best of our heritage into the future.”

So: More grizzlies in the Northwest. Would you support it?

—Ted Alvarez

Bloomberg News