Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington by Dan Neville via Flickr

Allow for and promote the natural recovery of grizzly bears in the North Cascades

A plan by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to translocate grizzly bears into the North Cascades in Washington is misguided in the many ways that it would violate the Wilderness Act. None of the current action alternatives in the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) are compatible with Wilderness. Also concerning, the methods proposed could result in death or injury of the bears, which are endangered.

The proposed recovery area of 6.1 million acres includes North Cascades National Park and 2.6 million acres of Wilderness in the Pasayten, Mt. Baker, and Stephen Mather Wildernesses. All, or almost all, landings would apparently be in Wilderness, either in North Cascades National Park or in surrounding national forests, despite the fact that 60 percent of the project area is outside of Wilderness.

Wilderness Watch supports the recovery of grizzly bears and other native species where suitable habitat exists. The rugged North Cascades are historic grizzly bear habitat, and there are likely a few currently living on the U.S. side of border, with a grizzly bear photographed there in 2010.

But recovery efforts must meet the requirements of the Wilderness Act. This means restoring the area’s grizzly population without the use of motor vehicles and equipment, without trammeling or manipulating the landscape or its wildlife. However suitable the habitat in the North Cascades is, we take issue with the methods proposed—the reintroduction plan is extremely intrusive, relies on activities prohibited by the Wilderness Act, and would come at a significant cost to Wilderness.

The plan proposes anywhere from 50 to 400 helicopter landings and twice that many flights (though the DEIS is somewhat inconsistent on the exact numbers) to move up to 160 bears, again all or mostly all within Wilderness despite more of the project area being outside of Wilderness. The extensive use of helicopters would continue indefinitely for monitoring bear movement and numbers.

This heavy-handed management would not only be detrimental to Wilderness, but to bears as well, as they would be subjected to initial capture, handling, and helicopter flight, and attendant stress from such activities. Some may be injured or even die as a result. ​They would likely be collared, drugged, subject to samples taken, and handled for many years. And if that weren’t enough, the EIS ignores the literature describing the effects of helicopters on wildlife, including grizzlies.

It’s also questionable whether a translocation plan will be successful without Canadian support. Information is lacking on the status of grizzlies on the Canadian side of the border though this area is crucial in any success, as bears wander between the U.S. and British Columbia in the North Cascades ecosystem.

The essential irony is that agencies recognize the best place to release bears is in the exceedingly rare wild-ness of the North Cascades. The best grizzly habitat is synonymous with wilderness: space to roam, isolation, denning sites, safety from human-caused mortality, and distance from human conflicts and garbage. But the agency’s proposed methods of re-establishing grizzlies diminish all these advantages.

If the Park Service adopts a translocation plan, it must be in line with the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act. Monitoring should take place in a way that’s respectful to Wilderness and bears, including using hair snags, camera traps, scat collection, and on-the-ground sightings to know whether the bears are thriving. It’s wrong to rely on intrusive radio-collaring and ongoing handling of the bears.

The DEIS entirely lacks a natural recovery option. The best way to meet the goal of a viable grizzly population in the North Cascades would be to allow for and boldly promote the natural recovery of grizzlies. This is a very different approach than the “no action” option in the DEIS, which is to “do nothing.” A natural recovery alternative would require working with British Columbia to protect grizzlies over a larger land base and would provide for connectivity between populations in the U.S. and Canada using protected habitat corridors. It would also include other measures to ensure that grizzlies are not killed by humans, regardless of what side of the border they are on and whether they are in national parks, Wilderness, or other public or private lands. It might take longer and require more patience than the instant gratification of capturing and releasing dozens of bears, but it would ultimately create a more durable population sharing the landscape with a human population that is more likely to respect the bears that make it back to the North Cascades on their own.

Please write to the National Park Service by October 24 and encourage the agency to reconsider its approach to grizzly recovery in the North Cascades by adopting a wilderness-compatible plan.  Some points to emphasize:

  • A natural recovery alternative should be thoroughly considered. It is the only alternative compatible with the Wilderness Act. It would require working with British Columbia to ensure that grizzlies are protected on both sides of the border.
  • All the current alternatives violate the Wilderness Act and would entail heavy-handed, stressful management of bears. Should the NPS choose to augment the existing population by translocating bears, the agency should first consider limiting translocation to sites outside of Wilderness. If the NPS decides to translocate within Wilderness, it must comply with the Wilderness Act: no helicopters, no motorized equipment and no invasive monitoring.

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Photo: Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington by Dan Neville via Flickr

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