Outdoor Recreation Enthusiasts Learn Bear Safety

by Hallie Sykes, Farmer Frog Garden Educator, Woodland Park Zoo Advanced Inquiry Masters Degree Program

On a chilly, yet sunny, spring afternoon this April a dozen community members gathered to learn how to share the landscape with black and grizzly bears in a workshop hosted by Western Wildlife Outreach. The workshop featured Zoe Hanley, Senior NW Representative at Defenders of Wildlife, whose work involves promoting non-lethal deterrents as a tool to prevent gray wolf depredation on livestock. Defenders is also involved with supporting grizzly bear coexistence in the North Cascades and Selkirk ranges of Washington state.

The workshop was held at Farmer Frog in the Paradise Valley Conservation Area which is 700-acres of undeveloped land set aside to protect the headwaters of Bear Creek, one of the most productive wild salmon streams left in Western Washington. This landscape provides a refuge for bears, cougars, coyote, bobcat, deer and other wildlife.

Western Wildlife Outreach planned the training to educate people about bear biology, black and grizzly bear identification, how to handle bear encounters, and securing bear attractants around the home and campsite.

Bear Safety & Coexistence Workshop props: bear safety education materials, a bear-proof storage can, bear tracks, skull and scat example, a farm diorama. Photo credit: Hallie Sykes

Participants gathered eagerly and several shared their bear stories.

“I have bears every year,” said Jeanne Weiss, a resident of the area surrounding Paradise Valley. Jeanne knows that we are living alongside wild animals because she documents them. “We have cameras and we’ve seen bears, coyotes, bobcats, deer, cougars.”

She came to the workshop hoping to learn strategies to deal with bears visiting her unfenced backyard where her dogs some times run into them. Hanley mentioned that half of bear encounters in WA state are caused by off leash dogs because the bear ends up chasing the dog back to the human. Hanley reassured Jeanne that bear spray and the workshop training would be a key tool for handling such an encounter in the future.

Adel Krupp, who attended the workshop with her two teenagers, also wanted to learn how to coexist with wildlife at home. The only participant this day with livestock (chickens) she got some key advice from Hanley about using a three strand electric fence to surround the coop, including the top of it, as a deterrent to bears and other wildlife.

Krupp will also follow Hanley’s advice to take down the bird feeders from April to November when bears go into denning season. Winter is actually the only time when song birds are in need of food supplementation to help get through the winter months participants learned.

Zoe Hanley compares the track patterns of a Kodiak grizzly bear to a black bear. The grizzly track she is holding is much larger than grizzlies in Washington, which is home to less than a dozen in the easter side of the state. An encounter with one of Washington’s 20,000 black bears is much more likely. Photo credit: Hallie Sykes

Bear encounters are more likely to occur during the months of March through November when bears are working to consume calories to make it through their denning/hibernation season. An encounter with a bear has significant risks for people and pets and also bears themselves. If they become a nuisance the bear must be trapped, relocated or even killed if they’ve become habituated to human provided food sources.

“It’s a privilege to see them but we don’t want to be drawing wild animals in close to our homes. When they get acclimated to human foods that’s when bears get killed,” said Hanley.

While workshop participants generally didn’t have a lot of concerns themselves about bears, several expressed they felt people in their community were more afraid of bears than they needed to be. Bear attacks are extremely rare. Only 2-5 people die per year in all of North America.

Hanley stated the best thing to do is try not to surprise the bear. A surprised bear may display behaviors such as huffing, teeth clacking, rocking on legs, and even a fake-out “bluff charge” where they sprint and then stop short. Other behaviors you might witness during a bear encounter include more of a curious stance on their hind legs (used when a bear wants to get a better look at something).

If either a black or grizzly bear gets too close to you – stand your ground!

Have bear spray ready, don’t turn your back or run, back up slowly. If the bear keeps approaching deploy the bear spray by aiming it at the ground about eight feet in front of you. Spray to create a wall of the deterrent in front of you in order to stop the bear’s forward movement. In the rare case that doesn’t work and the bear attacks, fight back.

Other tips to avoid these situations are: make noise on the trail, keep children close in sight, hike with dogs on leash, don’t approach dead animals, carry bear spray, keep it at hand and know how to use it. At your campsite don’t store food or smelly things like deodorant in your tent. Pack it in, pack it out.

After learning about minimizing attractants, learning about bear behavior and safety tips for dealing with them, participants went out behind the barn to practice using bear spray. Hanley recommends carrying two bear spray canisters when backpacking because the spray can be exhausted after three bursts of 2-3 second sprays.

Workshop participants line up and deploy practice cans of bear spray, aiming at the ground in front of them to create a wall of spice, versus aiming directly at a bear. Photo credit: Lynn Okita

Workshop attendees appreciated the opportunity to learn a new skill and got to take home a free can of bear spray donated by Counter Assault. They also appreciated learning what to do if bear spray gets in their own eyes as well.

Water, Air, and Time were the three first aid words to remember.

Rinse with water and don’t rub your eyes since the grains of capsaicin can aggravate the eye if rubbed. Allow your eyes to use tears to move the spray out. Keep them open and exposed to the air. In time the discomfort will pass, only lasting for 30 minutes or so.

All of this is a better alternative than a bear attack, which Hanley again mentioned is very rare. Even with her vast experiences in the wilderness she has never had to use bear spray. However, it does provide peace of mind.

To learn more about Bear Identification and Bear Safety, visit these links here on the Western Wildlife Outreach website and join this group of newly empowered community members in promoting awareness and peaceful coexistence with our wild animal neighbors.

Wildlife Habitat & Climate Change

Cougar in snow
Photo by Maurice Hornocker

Being at the top of the food chain means that apex predators such as bears, wolves and cougars can be easily toppled when the biological foundations of their ecosystems collapse. Maintaining healthy habitats for these keystone species protects countless other species that share the landscape with them.

While the full long-term impacts of climate change on different ecosystems are difficult to predict, there are a number of likely scenarios that we can be aware of and manage for today:

  • Rainfall and the availability of water will shift. Rising temperatures will result in smaller snowpacks and earlier snowmelt. This will result in shortages of mid- to late-summer water supplies and shifts in the availability of carrion.
  • Vegetation patterns are already shifting, resulting in migration of prey to new areas and the local elimination of various plants that carnivores and their prey rely on for food.
  • Warmer temperatures will allow diseases to spread into new areas where the resident wildlife has not had the opportunity to develop resistance. This is already occurring with blister rust and other vegetative diseases attacking many northern tree species, and a spread of dangerous nematodes among muskoxen in northern Canada.
  • The speed of temperature changes will stress many species before they are able to adapt to the new conditions. This will weaken species that are not able to move to newly created, more suitable habitat and will reduce biodiversity, thus reducing resilience in many ecosystems.

What is Landscape Connectivity?

The more diverse an ecosystem, the better equipped it is to deal with environmental changes in the environment. Reducing human impacts such as roads and other developments in wilderness areas keeps habitat from getting fragmented into unusable parcels, slows the incursion of invasive species, and more.  Scientists have found that large carnivores do better when they have expansive ranges for finding food and are able to move freely between landscapes to follow prey and other food sources.

For large carnivores to overcome climate-related challenges, they need big, connected tracts of suitable habitat. This will become even more critical as climate change progresses and the alterations in landscapes become more extreme. In fact, according to the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group, “maintaining connectivity is the single most frequently recommended strategy to reduce the threat of climate change to biodiversity.”

Animals, particularly large ones, need two types of movement. As individuals, they need to be able to move freely within their home range in order to meet the needs for their daily survival – finding food, shelter and a mate. As a species, they also need movement outside of that home range and into other suitable habitat to share genes with other populations to avoid inbreeding and for young males to disperse and create new home ranges.

Human impacts have already made both types of movement more difficult for large carnivores such as bears, cougars, and wolves. Roads, housing developments and forest clear-cuts have fragmented once-intact habitat for wildlife. These incursions into wild lands have also increased human-wildlife conflict, causing an increase in lethal control measures used on predators.

Even if an animal’s core habitat is still intact and allows movement within a home range, human development surrounding the habitat can create an “island effect.” This means that the animal or its offspring can’t reach another area to establish new territory or share genes with another population, or travel to find food if climate change makes its current range uninhabitable. Therefore, it is critical that we preserve corridors between wild landscapes that will allow large predators to seek out suitable habitat if their old ranges stop meeting their needs.

Large Carnivores Mitigate Climate Change

The snowpack in mountainous areas is already melting earlier every year as a result of climate change. This, combined with warmer air temperatures, allows plants to begin sprouting earlier in the spring. While this is great news for the elk and deer that feed on those plants, it is not so great for the scavengers.

Longer winters are more stressful for wildlife, and as the winter lingers on, more animals succumb to starvation. This means that in late winter and early spring, there is an abundance of carcasses for the scavengers to feed on. Earlier sprouting and earlier exposure of plants provides food to browsers and grazers before they reach this critical point.

In the absence of predators, earlier melt will cause fewer carcasses to be available, and scavengers such as bald eagles, ravens and coyotes that rely on that source of meat to make it through the last bit of winter will go hungry. Wolves and cougars continue to provide those carcasses through their hunting, and provide a bridge to late spring and summer when more food is available.

Wolf kills have also been found to provide nutrient “hot spots” on the landscape in studies done on Isle Royale in Minnesota. The soil at these kill sites have 100 – 600% more nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus than surrounding areas, and plants growing on these sites have as much as 47% more nitrogen in their leaves. It can be expected that kills by other predators have the same benefits to the surrounding ecosystem, creating more robust plant communities that will be able to withstand climate-related changes in the environment.

Looking to the Future

Climate change is forcing a whole new approach to wildlife management. Whereas past practice was to try to maintain or restore some historical baseline, that approach is no longer relevant. An area that has provided ideal habitat for wolves or grizzly bears for thousands of years may never be able to support them again, and landscapes that have never held these species may suddenly become critical habitat for them.

Even our national park boundaries may soon be irrelevant in terms of maintaining the mix of species they are currently protecting. What this means is that we need to look beyond single management units. We need to maintain many healthy, functioning ecosystems, and provide good connectivity between them to allow flora and fauna to redistribute to suitable locations.

The future of wildlife management is going to require nimble strategies that can adapt to unforeseen changes. It will be necessary to regularly monitor wildlife populations, track the movements of prey species and the vegetation they feed on, and adjust management regimes to new realities. By using a flexible approach to the management of large carnivores and their habitats, we can lay the foundation for sustainable populations of these species to thrive through a changing climate.

Western Wildlife Outreach Attends Black Bear Release

This week Western Wildlife Outreach staff accompanied Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Officers and the Karelian Bear Dog Team into the field to release four black bear cubs.  A shout out to the folks at PAWS in Lynnwood, WA who do such great work with black bear rehabilitation and making this day possible. And a huge WWOOF! to WDFW’s KBD Team, human and canine!

Deterring Cougars

Deterring Cougars

by RDean, Humboldt County, California

It was that kind of moment, one that left us shocked and stunned into a state of questioning our own sanity. Over almost 40 years of living in our cabin-like little-house on the edge of the Redwood forest in far-north coastal California, we had dismissed occasional accounts of cougar sightings as very possibly “someone had smoked a little too much of something that maybe they shouldn’t have.”

We had worked and played in the woods on almost a daily basis without seeing any sign yet, in less than a heartbeat, a cougar had stolen our old housecat, Little Boy, off our front porch one cold January evening–right in front of our eyes–and disappeared into the dark of night so quickly we could do nothing. Flashlight and shotgun in hand, I followed into the night, blasting away at old growth redwood stumps in the backyard to let the big cat know it had crossed the line of our tolerance. I could empathize with challenges of living the life of a predator, but when they preyed on me and mine–I could become a predator, too.

We were sad and angry for a time, but my wife (a Japanese Buddhist) came to view the incident as Karma that had finally caught up with our beloved old house cat for all the little rodents he had dispatched in a similar manner over his 23 year lifetime. We still had two other members of the family, house cats, who needed protection lest the cougar returned to try a repeat performance.

Deterring wildlife predators from poaching domestic stock and pets was not a new issue, so I reached out to farmers and ranchers for their knowledge of what measures had proved effective in their experience. One very savvy old rancher recommended we get a mule. “Mules hate cats, and will kick ‘em into next week given half a chance,” says he. Adopting and responsibly caring for a mule had its own complications, so I kept looking. It seemed like most resources agreed on a few measures that were at least helpful:

First, you CANNOT keep predators out of a protected perimeter if you entice their prey inside that perimeter by feeding your pets outdoors, having open compost piles, or allowing DEER to forage in your yard!

Learn to think like a predator. They have senses that are exponentially better than ours, and predators will accept your open invitations to dinner without your awareness. When you treat opossums and raccoons to snacks, you are also gathering them up as delectable snacks for the upper end of the food chain. Do the little critters a favor—do NOT make them dependent on you for food.

Second, BRIGHT LIGHTS and SOUND help deter wildlife.

On various outbuildings we mounted motion-sensor floodlights and also wired an old flea-market radio into their circuits. When a floodlight goes on, so does the radio. We tuned the radio to a strong 24-hour station. Sound doesn’t have to be loud to be effective. We mounted the lights lower than normal to shine more directly into an approaching critter’s eyes. We set the lights to their “TEST” setting, so the lights and the radio come on for 10 seconds, and then go off. The lights and sounds stop critters in their tracks, and makes their night-vision temporarily useless. The moment the animals make another move, another cycle of blinding light and mysterious sound hammers them. Nearby resident critters, such as foxes, will eventually figure out this puzzle, and come up with a “work around” solution, but big cats, and even resident bears who are just passing thru the area, will say “screw it,” and wander on down the trail for easier pickings.

Third, as backup for the above, we use MOTION-SENSOR rain-bird type SPRINKLERS that come on for a few seconds when triggered. These work really well for scaring off deer. Wandering wild dogs, however, will attack and destroy the sprinklers if they are at, or near, ground level.

And finally, GAME / TRAIL CAMERAS have given us valuable information about when and where predators and prey come and go. Cameras have removed a lot of the mystery and apprehension, and replaced them with appreciation and empathy for the obligatory lifestyle of these (dare I say it) totally AWESOME critters.

We feel honored to share the local forest with cougars and continue our quest to find more and better ways to coexist with them.

The Secret Life of Mountain Lions

The Secret Life of Mountain Lions from Secret Life of Mountain Lions on Vimeo.

The Secret Life of Mountain Lions ​provides a rare glimpse into the family and social bonds of mountain lions. It affirms their rightful place ​in nature and the importance of ​protecting them ​for generations to come. Narrated by Chris Morgan (PBS, BBC, National Geographic), this video contains extraordinary ​footage captured with ​motion-triggered cameras from Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project.

What John Belushi Didn’t Teach Us About Mountain Lions

by Dr. Jordan Schaul, First published in Huffington Post January 5, 2016. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

What may be comical, perhaps endearing and speaks to the elusive nature of the cougar (AKA mountain lion) is one of my earliest visuals of North America’s largest cat. Outside of a visit to a zoo, I recall first seeing a mountain lion in the critically acclaimed movie Continental Divide starring John Belushi. I was only eight when the Spielberg-produced comedy was released, but it served as an early and remarkable introduction for me in regard to the largest non-pantherine cat in the world and one of North America’s most iconic large predators.

Although I don’t remember the plot particularly well, I vividly remember the specific scene where human meets cougar. Unfortunately, the cinematic treatment of the run-in with the big cat not only left a lasting and erroneous impression on me, and likely my contemporaries, but it probably created many misperceptions of the big cat for a wide audience. With that said, I remember that it was a very entertaining feature film.

In the superbly directed or at least well-edited scene, a cougar wanders unceremoniously and unannounced into a cabin to the dismay of Belushi’s character and proceeds to shred him after the two exchange a few pleasantries. As a naïve and intensely urbanized cub scout with an already skewed perception of large predators and their habitat preferences, I was convinced from watching the film that cougars were common, bold and cavalier around people and commonly seen. I also gathered from the movie that these wild cats were strongly associated with rugged terrain. They do like rugged landscapes because they can seek refuge in such habitat, but before they were intensely hunted they were commonly found in a diversity of wild places, which supported ungulate prey species. Today, cougars have a restricted range in North America, having been extirpated from the Midwestern and Eastern states. But they have the most extensive north-south distribution of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere and may be recolonizing former range states in the US.

Cougars occur in range of habitats, provided there is ample vegetative cover or rocky outcrops that provide refuge. Within temperate zones of North America and tropical and subtropical rainforests of Central and South America, the cougar inhabits a diversity of landscapes. They are not simply residents of the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.

These big cats are most closely related to the cheetah and the jaguarundi, a small wild cat species with a historic range in the Southwestern United States. Although male cougars can attain weights of 140 lbs they are considered by biologists to be small cats in a big cat body. They don’t roar, but they can purr and they are quite agile and capable of jumping to considerable heights.

Although cougars can live in proximity to humans, they are exceedingly fearful of people and often retreat before a person can catch a glimpse of their presence. They typically avoid open habitats and human modified environments. A common myth is that cougars jump out of trees or off cliff ledges to attack prey. They do ambush unsuspecting animals from behind cover, but they only jump to lower elevations to build up momentum when in pursuit of prey.

Cougar-related human fatalities are far fewer than dog-related human fatalities, but perception is everything and people still perceive cougars to be dangerous to humans, pets and livestock. In North America they prey predominantly on large ungulates. Cervids (i.e. moose, elk and deer) are a mainstay and bison really represent the only exception in terms of potential prey that they won’t consider. As generalists, mountain lions forage on a very wide range of species including many large and small mammals and birds. In fact, six smaller cat species, including Canada lynx and bobcat have been reported as prey items across the mountain lion’s entire geographic range.

Although a regulated game animal in Washington State, trophy hunting has placed significant pressure on cougars and the population trend is likely in decline, at least in the Eastern part of the state. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates, there may be as many as 2500 cougars in Washington State, although it is not possible to know real population numbers for sure.

According to Lorna Smith, the Executive Director of Western Wildlife Outreach, “Conflict with people, pets and livestock primarily occurs where hunting pressure has been intense, and large dominant males have been killed, causing disruption in localized cougar populations. Young males vie for that dominant position, and chaos can ensue for a while. In the words of Dr. Rob Weilgus whose research team has conducted many years of research on Washington’s cougar populations and their behavior, ‘When one old guy dies, three young guys come to the funeral’. All of a sudden young cougars are vying for dominance in the vacated territory, competing for resources for food and mating. The losers may venture onto ranches or farms in search of any kind of prey. So, we now know that the role of older dominant toms is very important in reducing conflicts with humans and their domestic animals.”

WWO has produced a video on staying safe in Cougar Country, which can be viewed here on our Vimeo channel.

Rivers, Salmon, Bears and Healthy Forests

What if I told you that the trees are here, in part, because of the salmon? That the trees that shelter and feed the fish, that help build the fish, are themselves built by the fish?” ~ Carl Safina, essayist for Salmon in the Trees

Under the cover of darkness, black bears prowl the banks of the stream, wading out among moss-covered rocks below overhanging branches festooned with drooping lichen. The bears are waiting for the return of their favorite feast, spawning salmon. The salmon are returning guided by mysterious forces that have inexorably drawn them from their ocean home back to the streams where they were born and where they will spawn and die, completing the circle of life. But there is a bigger story that goes beyond the salmon, the river and the bears. It’s a story about the intricate connection between the towering conifer giants of the temperate west-coast rainforests, the hungry bears and the returning salmon.

While it might seem somewhat intuitive that the nutrients and nitrogen provided by salmon are beneficial to aquatic plants and plants growing on the stream banks, it has only been in the last decade that the critical role played by bears, both black bears and grizzlies, in dispersing nutrients from salmon throughout the riparian forest has been identified and recognized as an essential component in maintaining the health of riparian forests.

Beginning with early studies by Tom Reichman in 2000, and continued by Gende, Quinn and other prominent researchers, primarily in British Columbia and Alaska, the ultimate “fate” of salmon carcasses removed from the river by bears has been tracked. One such study examined the transport of the salmon into the forests in three watersheds in Southeastern Alaska over three seasons using tagged sockeye salmon and the ultimate location of the recovered tags to tell the story. The results were surprising: up to 50% of the fish caught and killed by bears, both brown bear and black bear, were transported away from the streams and into the surrounding temperate rainforest. Once the bears have successfully landed a protein-rich fish, they often disappear with the prize deep into the trees in order to avoid competition from other bears or scavengers. Once there, the remains of the fish are scattered through the forest,  along with bear scat.

And now the story really gets interesting. Following up on this initial research regarding nutrient transport into forests, a team of researchers headed up by James Helfield and Robert Naiman of the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources devised a method to measure the actual amount of marine-derived nitrogen in trees through coring the trees and examining the stable nitrogen isotope ratios of annual growth rings.

Nitrogen availability has been identified as the limiting factor for terrestrial plant growth in riparian ecosystems. The study concluded that trees and shrubs near spawning streams grew three times faster than other control stands, and that salmon-borne, marine-derived nitrogen is the reason why. As riparian forests affect the quality of in-stream habitat through shading, sediment and nutrient filtration, and production of large woody debris (LWD), this fertilization process serves not only to enhance riparian production, but may also act as a positive feedback mechanism by which salmon- borne nutrients improve spawning and rearing habitat for subsequent salmon generations and maintain the long-term productivity of river corridors along the Pacific coast of North America.  And all of this marine-derived nitrogen from salmon is transported and made available to the trees by bears!  

Over millenia bears have been fulfilling this age-old critical role of salmon carcass dispersers, moving nutrients from the stream to the forest, so that riparian trees grow tall and strong, eventually contributing large woody debris to streams, improving spawning and rearing habitat for subsequent salmon generations and maintaining the long-term productivity of river corridors along the Pacific Coast of North America. Its time to give bears there due in the watersheds of the Pacific Northwest as the real kings of the forest.

The Iconic Grizzly Bear Returns

by Dr. Jordan Schaul. First posted in Huffington Post. Reprinted here with permission from the author.

Posted: 12/04/2015 12:13 pm EST

Acclaimed photographer Tom Mangelsen and noted journalist Todd Wilkinson just released the book Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, which is a memoir of sorts of one of the most famous grizzly bears in the Lower 48. Her name is 399 and she is a star among bears.

Bear 399 was first fitted with a tracking collar back in 2001, as a 5-year-old sow living in Grand Teton National Park. Studies of 399 and her cubs’ movements and interactions with people near Jackson Hole have recently enlightened researchers about the behavior of habituated bears, not to be confused with food conditioned bears.

Pioneering radio telemetry studies were conducted by the Craigheads in the late 1950’s, when they researched the behavior and ecology of the grizzly bears of Yellowstone. Although the technology is now more sophisticated with the advent of GPS collars, conceptually the telemetric study of bears and other carnivores as they move across the landscape remains fundamentally the same. The collar emits a signal, which enables researchers to remotely monitor the movements of wildlife and their use of habitat.

In her 19 years, 399 has produced 15 cubs and her legacy will be continued by her surviving offspring. Bear 399 has garnered an immense amount of media attention around the world and has turned Jackson Hole into a mecca for bear viewing. Most importantly, bear 399 is a testament to bear conservation management programs adopted in the contiguous US.

Grizzlies, which are North America’s version of the brown bear have made an astonishing comeback from the mid-1970’s when they were federally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Although they must endure emerging threats from the likes of climate change, humans continue to pose the biggest threat through more direct influences.

Rebounding grizzly populations in the Lower 48 translate into more than just the restoration of a wildlife icon. The presence of grizzlies speaks to the health of ecosystems. Grizzlies are both umbrella and keystone species. Conserving these majestic mammals serves to facilitate preservation efforts for a multitude of other species that also occur in habitats where grizzly bears exist.

As eminent ecologist David Suzuki said, “Scientists believe that grizzly bears are an essential part of healthy, fully functioning ecosystems in western North America. Known as a “keystone” species, grizzlies are “ecosystem engineers” that help to regulate prey species and disperse the seeds of many plant species, such as blueberry and buffaloberry. They also help to maintain plant and forest health, both by aerating the soil as they dig for roots, pine nuts and ground squirrels, and by moving thousands of kilograms of spawning salmon carcasses into the forest, where trees and other plants absorb their high levels of nitrogen.”

According to the IUCN Red List, the world’s most comprehensive database on the conservation status of imperiled species, the total population of brown bears on Earth exceeds 200,000 individuals. Indeed, there are healthy and rebounding populations of brown bears around the world, with strongholds persisting in Russia, Canada and Alaska. Some of these populations are in decline, as a consequence of human-induced stressors like poaching, and encroachment and development of habitat. In addition, climate change and rapid human population growth continue to place pressure on these robust carnivores, which rival the polar bear as the largest terrestrial carnivore on the planet.

The brown bear is regionally extinct in Mexico and in Northern and Central Europe and in parts of Africa and Asia where it once flourished as an opportunistic omnivore and apex predator. Many of these regions on the planet will never be restored with brown bears, as habitat is not available nor is it suitable for reintroduction efforts. But as I mentioned in a recent article, some European brown bear populations are also making a comeback. This strongly suggests that human-brown bear coexistence is possible even in human-dominated landscapes. While some populations remain critically endangered, albeit stable (neither decreasing or increasing in numbers), others are actually increasing in size.

Critically endangered populations of brown bears face a high risk of extinction by definition. They are exceedingly vulnerable merely because their numbers are so low that they are susceptible to stochastic events. Lower reproductive rates and higher mortality rates in these small populations dictate that these bears receive as much protection as possible by wildlife management agencies. This is one reason that although grizzly bear recovery efforts have been deemed successful in restoring the North American brown bear to parts of their historic range in the Lower 48, efforts to delist the grizzly remain controversial and continue to be challenged by some in the conservation community.

The regionally “endangered” populations in both the contiguous US and Western Europe total under 20,000 bears with under 2,000 in the Lower 48 . Increasing development continues to threaten the 45-50 grizzly bears that inhabit the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem and other recovery zones in the Western US.

The Vital Ground Foundation is working to safeguard this population and bears in other recovery zones. The Montana-based land trust has launched an initiative to secure unprotected private land in the region so that bears can move undisturbed from protected public lands via linkage zones. The nonprofit conservation entity secures these properties through fee title acquisitions and conservation easements.

Vital Ground’s Executive Director Ryan Lutey provides a status report on grizzly bears in the Lower 48 for this year.

“During 2015, unusually warm, dry weather throughout western Montana and North Idaho diminished the availability of natural foods for bears, which has resulted in a dramatic increase in conflicts between bears and humans. Bears are being forced to roam farther in search of a meal, which offers many more opportunities for wandering bears to be hit crossing a highway or relocated or removed as part of a wildlife management action to mitigate a conflict. For a population as tenuous as the one in and around the Cabinet-Yaak, every single grizzly mortality carries implications for long-term recovery. and that’s why preventing additional human intrusion into wildlife habitat is so important. Collaborative approaches like helping private landowners tap into tax incentives associated with conservation easements protects wildlife habitat from inappropriate subdivision and development and helps make these teetering grizzly populations more resilient to both acute seasonal events and to the extended effects of climate change.”

In North America alone, there are nearly 58,000 brown bears (AKA grizzly bears). Most of these iconic mammals live in mountainous regions of Alaska and Western Canada. The recovery of the grizzly bear in the Lower 48 is an important restoration effort beyond just the conservation of one well-known and beloved species. Securing the future of these bears may be our most significant contribution to the conservation of North America’s natural heritage.

Our Summer Internship with WWO

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At the end of  their summer internships, WWO asked Elliot Harris, Matthew Chang and Nick Ward to write about their experiences.  WWO is very thankful to these three stalwarts for all the amazing things they accomplished on behalf of WWO and large carnivore awareness in Washington State!  Here it is in their own words:

I met Lorna and Darrell Smith in February of 2015 at an open house that was part of the public scoping phase of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Environmental Impact Statement. After volunteering at Western Wildlife Outreach events in the spring of 2015, Lorna and Darrell gave me the opportunity to intern with Western Wildlife Outreach for the summer of 2015 and help with presentations and booths throughout Western Washington.

Two of my friends and I created a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation, and compiled information about grizzly bears in the contiguous 48 states, and Washington’s North Cascades and Selkirk Mountain Ecosystems specifically. We worked with State Parks, National Forest Visitor Centers, and Summer Camps, to orchestrate informational presentations and booths for groups of all ages. I not only learned a great deal about Washington State’s large carnivores (bears, cougars, and wolves) throughout the internship, but I also learned about some of the central issues that undercut progress on wildlife restoration efforts.

The most notable issue that I learned about was the vast amount of misinformation surrounding conservation projects such as grizzly bear restoration. There were two primary forms of misinformation that I learned to be most detrimental to restoration efforts.

Firstly and most obvious was the vast amount of misinformation about basic wildlife biology and behavior. This is particularly harmful in the case of carnivores because without an understanding of carnivore biology and behavior, people attribute adverse encounters with carnivores to the inherent biology of the carnivores rather than to human behavior that attracts carnivores into close proximity with humans, the most common form of human behavior being poor odor prevention practices. After working at booths this past summer, it quickly became clear that people love to tell stories about potentially dangerous encounters with bears (I am one of these people, as my family has had its share of bear encounters). It is no surprise that as these stories are told and retold, there is a certain amount of embellishment that tends to denounce the behavior of bears and glorify the survival of humans. In the case of many visitors to our booths, there was an ingrained sense of blame towards bears for such encounters, rather than attributing the encounters to human behavior. While it was often difficult to sway the opinions of audiences that firmly adhere to their beliefs, it also provided an opportunity to talk to people about bear safety and bear biology and behavior in an effort to prevent future adverse encounters. This form of basic misinformation proved to be particularly detrimental because it quickly became clear that people were forming their opinions about grizzly bear restoration based off of false information. Once basic facts were clarified, opponents of restoration often left the booth much more receptive to a restored grizzly bear population in Washington. Misinformation about wildlife biology and behavior must be countered by the distribution of accurate, scientific information so that people are able to make informed decisions about their support of conservation projects.

Secondly, there was a lack of understanding about the implications of grizzly bear restoration in Washington’s North Cascades. This was most clearly evidenced by the expectation that a restored grizzly bear population would somehow vastly change life in Washington. However, visitors to our booths often had no clear denotation of a “restored population.” This was a much easier hurtle to overcome because it was as simple as explaining that “a restored population will be a self-sustaining, genetically viable, and disaster-resilient population of 200-400 grizzly bears spread across the 10,000 square mile North Cascades Ecosystem.” For those still skeptical, we simply had to explain that “bear safety practices are the same for black bears and grizzly bears, and the state already has about 25,000 black bears living in habitats closer to humans than grizzly bears, so grizzly bear restoration will not change day-to-day life at all.” Once people realized that having a restored population has no negative consequences, they generally viewed the conservation effort much more favorably. This is, however, only one of many examples of how people did not understand the implications of grizzly bear restoration. It became imperative to offer clear explanations of the implications of grizzly bear restoration in order to allow people to make an informed decision about restoration.

Upon realizing how pervasive misinformation is in wildlife conservation efforts, the importance of Western Wildlife Outreach became much more clear. By “promoting an accurate understanding of large carnivore heritage through education and community outreach in Washington and Idaho,” Western Wildlife is providing the public with the information necessary to make an informed decision about grizzly bear restoration. More so, they are not only providing people with appropriate information, but are also inspiring people to change their behavior when living in proximity to carnivores. This allows humans and carnivores to coexist safely in a wholesome environment. The work of Western Wildlife Outreach is invaluable to the conservation of the Pacific Northwest’s unique ecosystems.

__Elliot Harris, Intern, WWO 2015

Working with Western Wildlife Outreach this summer has been an eye-opening experience. As an organismal biology and ecology major, I’ve always been interested in wildlife ecology and learning about how ecosystems are most effectively managed not by humans, but by the creatures that inhabit them. This summer, we focused on the ecological role of large carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem. By educating ourselves about these animals, we were able to discuss the current effort to restore the grizzly bear population to the North Cascades Ecosystem with the general public. Our outreach was done both by visiting summer camps and answering questions at Western Wildlife Outreach booths. At Tall Timber Ranch alone, we were able to present to about 150 people during two separate sessions (one for high school students, one for junior high students). We were also able to spend time answering individual questions and addressing personal concerns about the current status of bears, wolves, and cougars while working at Western Wildlife Outreach booths. The booths helped attract people with hands-on displays such as skulls, teeth, claws, pelts, and even full grizzly and black bear mounts.  We answered a variety of questions, and addressed a lot of the myths and misinformation surrounding grizzlies in the North Cascades.

It’s been a pleasure to have worked with Lorna and Darrell Smith this summer. Their obvious passion and dedication to all the large carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem is what drives projects and improves the natural areas they love. They also were able to give us some experience and insight as to the life of a wildlife biologist; an invaluable experience for me as that’s a career path I’m considering taking in the future. I’ve learned a lot this summer, and not just about grizzlies but also about how the relationships from USDFW and WDFW exist between non-governmental organizations such as Western Wildlife Outreach.

__Matthew Chang, WWO Intern, 2015

I have found a great deal of pleasure in delivering presentations and spreading the word about the status of grizzly bears and the pressing ecological issues surrounding them. The negative effects to the North Cascades ecosystem (NCE) that will result from the absence of these keystone predators will effect younger generations. Our focus this summer was to involve these younger audiences in the restoration process of grizzly bears in the NCE, so that they may not have to experience the future degradation of this ecosystem. I look forward to seeing the environmental improvement that results from our outreach.

Working with and getting to know Lorna and Darryl Smith on a personal level has been a real pleasure of this internship. I have learned a lot about bears and other large carnivores over these summer months through them. My knowledge of bears prior to this internship was enough to realize how fascinating and impressive these animals are. Now, I truly understand not only how intelligent bears are, but how essential these giant creatures are in their ecosystems. Although my career aspirations as a fine woodworker are somewhat irrelevant when considering this internship, my moral framework and personal interests as an outdoorsman fully support this essential restoration movement as well as Western Wildlife Outreach.

__Nicholas Ward, WWO Intern, 2015