Grizzly Legal Status & Recovery

Grizzly bears are a vital component of the North Cascades Ecosystem and Selkirk Ecosystems that lived in the North Cascades and Selkirks long before humans arrived. They are an important part of our national heritage and should be preserved. Many people believe that grizzly bears have a right to co-exist with humans, as long as safety and economic concerns can be addressed.

Threats to Grizzly Bears

The two most significant current threats to grizzly bears in Washington are small numbers and a lack of connected habitats.

With only 10 – 40 grizzly bears believed to use the North Cascades Ecosystem on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border, and another 40 – 50 in the Selkirk Ecosystem straddling Washington, Idaho and Canada, the populations are marginal for survival.  It will take 200 – 400 bears for the North Cascades population to be considered stable.  Given that grizzly bears have the slowest reproduction rate of any mammal in North America, it could take 100 years in good conditions to reach this population size unless bears are introduced from other areas (called population augmentation).

Due to a lack of connected wild landscapes, North Cascades grizzly bears are geographically isolated from other populations.  Natural genetic mixing can’t occur and their diversity and health will become compromised over time.  As grizzly bear numbers increase, this lack of connected wild spaces will also force the bears into areas that are inhabited by humans, causing conflict between bears and people.  We can plan ahead to protect bears and humans by educating residents throughout the Grizzly Bear Recovery Area on how to live safely in bear country.

Outside of Washington State, most of the threats to grizzly bears can be tied to their increasing interactions with humans.  As new roads and housing developments degrade and fragment their natural habitat, bears are forced to be more mobile and seek new sources of food.  Unfortunately, those new sources are often non-bear-proof garbage cans left out at the homes of people recently arrived in bear country.  These “habituated” bears, as they lose their fear of humans, quickly become “problem bears” and are often killed because they are perceived as a threat to humans or pets.

Climate change is the wildcard that could exacerbate all of these challenges.  While it is impossible to predict exactly what the impacts will be, scientists are already seeing that the die-off of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem [link to a study here], a critical food source for grizzly bears in that region, is reducing bear survival.  The loss of this important source of protein is also forcing the animals to move into populated areas in search of alternative food sources, resulting in more conflict with humans.  As climate change causes shifts in vegetation across the range of grizzly bears, connectivity between undeveloped areas will become more critical than ever.  Large mammals will need unimpeded movement across the landscape to find the food they depend on.

Federal Listing – a Threatened Species

  • In 1975, the grizzly bear was listed as “Threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act.
  • In 1983, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) was established with the goal of recovering the grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states.
  • The IGBC was charged with identifying historic grizzly bear habitat for recovering grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. The IGBC includes representatives from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, US Geological Survey, state fish and wildlife departments, and the British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land, and Air Protection.
  • The IGBC identified six ecosystems in four states with an adequate amount of good quality habitat for grizzly bear recovery: Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide, Selway-Bitteroot, Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk, and North Cascades.


North Cascades Recovery Area

The North Cascades recovery area is bounded by the Canadian border to the North, the I-90 corridor to the South, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests to the East, and the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest and the Loomis State Forests to the West.

North Cascades Grizzly Recovery Zone

  • The North Cascades grizzly bear recovery area covers almost 10,000 mi2, and is the largest recovery area in the U.S. Of this area, 90% is public land (federal and state), 40% is designated wilderness, and 68% is not accessible to motorized vehicles.
To see a map of the north-eastern portion of the North Cascades recovery ecosystem in Okanogan County, click the small map to expand.
width="150"To see a map of the north-western portion of the North Cascades recovery ecosystem in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, click the small map to expand. For a map showing the entire recovery ecosystem, click the small map to expand.
  • Most of the core or secure habitat for grizzly bears is in wilderness areas or portions of the North Cascades with no motorized access.
  • The recovered population in the North Cascades Ecosystem will be about 200 to 400 grizzly bears (about one per 33 mi2).
  • It will likely take up to a century to achieve this population.
  • The next step in the recovery process is the development of a formal Environment Impact Statement (EIS).  The EIS process will be managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service with assistance from other agencies.  A wide range of recovery strategies will be considered at that time.  When this public process is initiated, local communities will have extensive opportunities for input on the development and selection of recovery strategies.

Credit: High Country News


For a full chronology of events related to grizzly bears in the North Cascades of Washington, click here.

For a mini handout poster (two 8.5 x 11 sheets) containing interesting facts, maps, and statistics, click here to download (650 kb pdf).

The following information is from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s website

The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area is one of the largest contiguous blocks of Federal land remaining in the lower 48 states, encompassing approximately 9, 565 square miles within north central Washington. Stretching from the US-Canada border south to Interstate 90, it includes all of the North Cascades National Park, and most of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forests.Click to continue reading»

About 85% of the recovery area is Federal land, 5% State land and about 10% private lands. Approximately 41% of the recovery area is within the NCNP or designated wilderness areas while over 70% has no motorized access. The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area is directly adjacent to the Canadian portion of the ecosystem. The Canadian government considers the bears in that portion of the ecosystem to be the most endangered grizzly bear population in Canada.

There are currently believed to be fewer than 20 grizzly bears in the U.S. portion of the ecosystem, with perhaps that many more in the Canadian portion. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the grizzly bears in the U.S. portion are warranted for listing as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act, that change in status remains precluded by other priorities and they are listed as threatened. Because of their small numbers, however, they are widely believed to be the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the U.S. today.

The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Chapter, completed in 1997, provides a shopping list of recovery activities for the many Federal and State agencies involved in grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades. The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear committee meets twice yearly to coordinate grizzly bear recovery efforts. Substantial work has been done in identifying and mapping bear management zones, habitat types, and potential bear/human conflict areas and in providing bear-resistant food containers and other sanitation devices within the recovery area. The Subcommittee is noted for the diligence and innovation of their public outreach and education efforts and for their close coordination with counterparts working to recovery grizzly bears in the Canadian portion of the ecosystem.

On April 18, 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced the initiation of a 5-year review of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) (as listed in the lower 48 States excluding the Greater Yellowstone Area population) and 8 other species (72 FR 19549). We conducted reviews to ensure that our classification of each species as threatened or endangered on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants is accurate. A 5-year review is an assessment of the best scientific and commercial data available at the time of the review.

While study of this very rugged and remote habitat indicates that this ecosystem is capable of supporting a self-sustaining population of grizzlies, only a “remnant” population remains, incapable of enduring without active recovery efforts.  The population is estimated to be fewer than 20 animals within the 9,500 mi2 North Cascades recovery zone (limited to the U.S.) and the bears in this ecosystem are warranted for endangered status.  In 1991, the Fish and Wildlife Service first issued a warranted but precluded finding to uplist the North Cascades recovery zone population to endangered status.  As noted in the recently published  Annual Notice of Findings on Resubmitted Petitions, this uplisting action continues to be precluded by higher priority listing actions (see the species assessment form for additional information on why reclassification is warranted but precluded). The Service assigned a listing priority number of 3 for this population because of very low population numbers as evidenced by continuing lack of credible sightings and little success identifying animals through hair snagging and genetic analysis.

Threats to the species in this recovery zone include incomplete habitat protection measures (motorized access management), small population size, and population fragmentation resulting in genetic isolation.  Information indicating isolation of the population in British Columbia and the United States limits the chance of natural recovery given the small population size.  Population augmentation may be the only way to recover this population.

The population in adjacent British Columbia is estimated to be less than 25 to 30 grizzly bears.  A draft British Columbia recovery plan for that area recommends habitat protection measures and population augmentation on the Canadian side of the border.

Current efforts toward recovery are focusing on habitat protection through a strategy of no net loss of core habitat, information and education efforts regarding grizzly bears and their habitat, and enhanced sanitation for proper garbage and food storage in bear habitat.  Information and education programs must continue to inform people about grizzly bear biology, and techniques to avoid conflicts when living or recreating in bear habitat.  An EIS process is necessary to involve the public in examining a range of alternatives to recover this population, including population augmentation. (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee

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