Saving Washington’s grizzly bears

Environmentalists, industry and politicians have a second chance to learn from decades of debate on wolves in order to save Washington’s grizzly bears

The fog was thick and the roads icy, but when a large horse trailer drove under the Roosevelt Arch on its way into Yellowstone National Park in January 1995, hundreds of cheering, smiling faces lined the entrance road to greet its newest residents – eight grey wolves, the first to inhabit the park in nearly 70 years.

It was the culmination of a 20-year battle to reintroduce wolves to the western United States. Full of bitter rhetoric and political posturing, the debate over whether to return canis lupus to central Idaho and Yellowstone had put the values of New Western environmentalists against those of Old Western ranchers who worried for the safety of their livestock.

Yellowstone’s wolves have now fully recovered, successfully expanding across the northern Rocky Mountains and into Washington, Oregon and California. But many Old Westerners are enamoured by a creation myth that includes the total removal of these species and find it difficult to coexist with animals their forefathers systematically eradicated. Just last month, the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it had authorised the killing of a wolf pack known as the ‘Profanity Peak’ pack after wolves had killed a rancher’s cattle.

But slowly, attitudes are shifting. And now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with support from a number of environmental groups, is seeking to release new grizzly bears into Washington’s North Cascades.

For Washington’s bear advocates to rescue its grizzly population, which has dwindled to fewer than 10 bears, will require the right social, cultural and political as well as ecological conditions. If wolves symbolically undermined the power of the Old West, a new population of grizzly bears would pose just as momentous a challenge, not to mention the public safety concerns wolves do not.


Grizzlies - Tim Rains/NPS Photo

Areas healthy enough to support grizzly bears can host a wide range of other species

Here come the grizzlies again

Populations of wolves and grizzlies are increasing even as the politics created by large carnivores remains murky.

In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service allocated $900,000 in grant money to compensate livestock producers for losses caused by wolves and assist them in using nonlethal deterrents to reduce conflict. Even so, Wyoming state’s refusal to manage wolves as anything other than varmints prompted a 2014 court decision to restore federal protections.

New Mexico withdrew from the Mexican wolf recovery program in 2011 and blocks the release of captive wolves even though the wild population’s limited genetic diversity has necessitated these releases. The recent decision to kill the 11 wolves of the Profanity Peak pack in Washington further suggests the continued sway of the state’s ranching industry.

Yet, in the next few years, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to augment the North Cascades’ diminishing grizzly population with new releases.

With a draft environmental impact statement due out later this year, a large number of environmental organisations have come together to support the bear’s recovery. So far, the coalition lacks any member outside the traditional green bloc. But with polls demonstrating support from more than 80 percent of Washington residents, supporters are confident that a robust education campaign will allay any lingering concerns.

One of the strongest arguments for the return of wolves was the presence of what scientists call ‘trophic cascades.’ As a top predator, wolves produce positive benefits that cascade down each level of the ecosystem, positively impacting everything from elk to songbirds to fish. The ecological reach of grizzly bears is shorter, but they are considered an umbrella species.

Throughout the year, grizzlies occupy diverse habitats and eat a variety of foods from elk calves to pine nuts. They act as an indicator for the ecosystem. If an area is healthy enough to support grizzly bears, then it can host a wide range of other species as well.

Perhaps we can extend this role just a bit further. In an age when some of our greatest challenges are environmental, our willingness to live alongside an animal that disrupts human supremacy may say a lot about our ability to tackle the problems whose origins rest in the fallacy of our primacy.

This is a condensed version of an article which first appeared on YES! Magazine.

Michael J. Dax is the author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West.

Images: Main image: Jim PeacoTim Rains/NPS Photo