Grizzly bears are a vital component of the North Cascades and Selkirk Ecosystems. The two most significant roadblocks to grizzly bear recovery in Washington are small numbers and a lack of connected habitats in both of these regions.
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.
Brief History of Grizzly Bear Recovery in the North Cascades
- 1975 – Grizzly bear listed as threatened species, lower 48 states under Endangered Species Act.
- 1980 – Grizzly bear listed as an endangered species by State of Washington.
- 1982 – National Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan approved by FWS; revised in 1993.
- 1983 – Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee established.
- 1991 – 9,800 square miles of North Cascades ecosystem in Washington State identified as adequate habitat for grizzly bears. Grizzly bears are confirmed in locations from just north of Interstate 90 to the international border.
- 1991 – The decision was made by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee during their winter 1991 meeting to recover grizzly bears in the North Cascades.
- 1993 – Detailed habitat evaluation of the North Cascades ecosystem published.
- 1997 – North Cascades chapter added to National Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan.
- 2004 – Grizzly bear recovery plan completed for the British Columbia portion of North Cascades ecosystem.
- 2014 – NPS/FWS begin Environmental Impact Statement on grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades ecosystem.
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, 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.