NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK—The grizzly bear looms large in the traditions of Pacific Northwest Indians, a creature both revered and almost human. It was a fixture of the natural world: a powerful predator and a source of food and stories.
Today the grizzlies of the Northwest exist mostly in legend. The few fleeting glimpses in the woods are so rare, some suspect there are no bears left in the jagged spine of the Cascade Mountains that splits Washington State.
That, however, might soon change. The federal government is starting down a road that could lead to setting the massive animals loose in North Cascades National Park. If so, it would be the first reintroduction of grizzly bears, a federally protected species—and the subject of many a backpacker's bad dreams.
"If all things go well, bears on the ground three or four years from now," says Mitch Friedman, executive director for Conservation Northwest, a Washington State-based environmental group and a chief proponent of bear reintroduction.
Like Yellowstone and Glacier?
The grizzly is largely extinct in most of the United States, thanks to a combination of 19th-century pelt hunting, decades of shoot-on-sight treatment, shrinking habitat, and very low reproduction.
In some spots, the bear is enjoying a comeback. Grizzly numbers have tripled to around a thousand since 1981 in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding lands, because of habitat protection and because fewer bears are being killed by people. Another thousand bears live farther north in Glacier National Park and nearby wilderness. But in four other parts of the northwestern U.S. designated as zones where grizzlies should roam, the bears either are absent or number under a hundred.
Now conservationists hope to see the bear set foot once again in some of its former hunting grounds. The Center for Biological Diversity, which frequently uses lawsuits to prod the federal government to help endangered species, is planning legal action to push for grizzly reintroduction in central Idaho and part of Montana. For years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has brought in extra females to boost a flagging population in far northwestern Montana, but it has never attempted to restore a grizzly population from zero.
Now the Cascade Mountains have moved into the grizzly spotlight. In August, the U.S. Park Service announced it was starting a three-year study of how to help the grizzly population recover there—a move that could pave the way for reintroductions.
Roughly 10,000 square miles of granite peaks, alpine meadows, forests, and sagebrush-filled valleys, much of it inside North Cascades National Park, is considered prime habitat that could support 200 or more bears. For the past two decades, government land managers have tried to make it a more hospitable place for any bears still there or ones that might stray south from Canada. They've restricted the construction of new roads and educated campers about how to behave in bear country. But measured by bear numbers, the effort has been a dud.
The last suspected grizzly sighting on the U.S. side of the border was in 2010. Before that, one was spotted in 1996. Biologists have scoured the mountains for grizzlies and come up empty-handed. Bill Gaines, a longtime U.S. Forest Service biologist, recently spent three summers pouring a foul-smelling goo of fermented salmon carcasses and roadkill onto piles of logs in the wilderness. The sites were monitored with motion-sensing cameras, and ringed with barbed wire to snag hair samples from unwitting bears lured by the aroma. The survey turned up hundreds of black bears, along with wolverines, wolves, and lynx. But not a single grizzly.
"Quite honestly the evidence suggests there are fewer and fewer bears, and the options [for recovery] are getting more limited," says Gaines, who now is a private consultant.
That doesn't stop people from trying to find one of these so-called ghost bears. On a chilly late October morning, Travis Van Noy and Aurora Potts set out for Thornton Lake, near the remote Picket Range, to retrieve two cameras. The volunteers for Conservation Northwest had installed them in the summer. Now they hoped to find a grizzly in the memory card of one of the cameras. But the prospect of meeting one in the woods—however unlikely—was a little less appealing.
"I'd want to see one," said Potts, as she tromped up a steep hillside shaded by enormous hemlocks and Douglas fir trees. "But I wouldn't want to see one in the woods here."
That touch of anxiety, even from a grizzly fan, illustrates the tricky terrain confronting the idea of grizzly reintroduction. An animal with four-inch claws that can weigh more than half a ton isn't a run-of-the-mill endangered species.
Near Thornton Lake, Potts and Van Noy scrambled over slick granite slabs and gingerly walked across fallen logs spanning an icy stream to reach one of their cameras. They crouched in the snow over the camera screen, hurriedly scanning the photos. One picture after another showed black bears. For a moment, their hopes rose at the site of a large, blond bear. But it lacked the broad face and distinctive hump behind the shoulders of a grizzly. Another season was ending without a sighting.
"It's just perfect bear habitat," Van Noy said, as he shouldered his backpack for the trip out. "I want to believe they're here."
Just a Study for Now
For decades, bear advocates have argued that the only way to revive grizzlies in the North Cascades is by shipping in bears from elsewhere. But the idea languished without money for a multiyear environmental analysis that could cost $700,000. This past summer, the Park Service said it would foot much of the bill for the study. It will hold public hearings, weigh a range of options for reviving the bears, examine the potential environmental impacts and the odds of success, and settle on a preferred approach.
The news has environmentalists guardedly optimistic, while others are reaching for the political equivalent of bear spray. Ranchers, some already coping with the return of federally protected wolves to eastern Washington, worry that the arrival of another endangered predator will mean more dead livestock and land-use restrictions in bear territory.
"Based on my experience with the wolf issue, I know our organization is not going to be supportive of reintroduction," says Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, which represents livestock producers in the state.
Recreationists, often allies of environmental groups, are also less enthusiastic about embracing a creature that, on very rare occasions, kills people. Craig Romano, who lives at the edge of the North Cascades and has written a dozen hiking guidebooks to the Northwest, says he supports reintroduction as long as it doesn't lead to road or trail closures. But he suspects many hikers would be opposed.
"I think a lot of people are terrified of the idea of grizzly bears in the North Cascades," Romano says.
Officials with the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the agency in charge of recovering bears—stress that no decision has been made about reintroduction. The study will evaluate a range of alternatives.
The Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho and Montana offer a lesson about how this might unfold. In 2000, after years of political wrangling and a similar study, Fish and Wildlife announced that it would release 25 grizzlies there. But it came with the caveat that bears would be managed with input from a citizen panel, and could be removed or killed under certain circumstances. The reintroduction was shelved in 2001, soon after the George W. Bush Administration took over.
Even if the current study eventually paves the way for reintroduction, however, don't expect the woods to suddenly be filled with bears. Gaines says small populations of grizzlies grow so slowly, they would still be a rarity in the Cascades for a long time.
"My [14-year-old] daughter will probably not see a grizzly bear in the Cascades, even if we were to pursue reintroduction tomorrow," he says.