Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith/Flickr

Could Grizzlies Make Good Neighbors?

In Washington State, biologists and conservationists are working to open the wilderness (and people’s minds) to the Great Bear.

February 13, 2017

For 20,000 years, grizzly bears padded over Washington’s North Cascades, foraging for berries and plants, hunting small prey, and fishing for salmon in frigid streams. Then a few centuries ago, white settlers showed up and starting shooting, driving the bears out. Today only a handful of grizzlies remain in these mountains.

Documentaries and fictional films, from Grizzly Man to The Revenant, and plain old common sense have taught that Ursus arctos horribilis is an Animal to Be Avoided. But what if we learned to share some space with the grizzly, namely about 2.6 million acres of wilderness in remote north-central Washington State? Only four grizzly bear sightings have been confirmed in this region in the past decade, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service (which are co-leading the restoration talks) estimate that the area could support as many as 280 of the animals.

Because the grizzly bear is a threatened species, the FWS must draft a plan to help the population recover in areas where it’s warranted. According to Ann Froschauer, a FWS public affairs supervisor, there are four options. Option A is basically doing nothing and hoping the grizzly recovers on its own—an idea that’s a bit fanciful considering the grizzly’s dismal numbers. Options B and C involve capturing grizzlies from populations in Montana or British Columbia and gradually releasing them into the North Cascades. And then there’s fast and furious Option D, which would entail releasing as many grizzlies as possible until reaching the goal of 200 bears. (You can review the alternatives in greater detail here.)

But before any of these plans can go into effect, the FWS needs to know how the public feels about them. A poll conducted last summer found that 80 percent of Washingtonians were in favor of bringing the grizzly back to its old habitat, but some residents were more wary.

“We absolutely do not need to put more carnivorous, dangerous animals in our forests and public land!” writes Barbara McGrew of Ellensburg, Washington, on the FWS’s online comment form. “In a perfect world maybe humans and these creatures could coexist, but this is not possible.”

“As a lifelong hiker and climber, I have avoided taking my wife and children into areas where they could be killed by these monsters,” writes an anonymous resident of Seattle. “This whole program seems ill-considered. What's next, killer bees, fire ants, or alligators?”

“Please do not restore grizzly bears in the State of Washington,” says Naydene Maykut, also of Seattle. “They are monsters that eat people particularly women.”

Given that these statements seem more fearful than factual, I checked in with biologist Wayne Kasworm, a grizzly bear expert for the FWS.

“There is certainly a risk of human injury or death associated with the presence of grizzly bears, and people need to assess that risk for themselves,” Kasworm says. But that risk is a relative one.

Take the 150 grizzlies at Yellowstone National Park, which at 2.2 million acres is a bit smaller than Washington’s proposed reintroduction area. During the park’s 144-year history, grizzly bears have killed at most eight people, Kasworm says. Within the same period, 119 Yellowstone guests have died from drowning, 36 from falling, 24 from suicide, 20 from burns after falling into thermal pools, 19 in horse-related accidents, 10 from freezing, and 9 from murder. That’s right—in Yellowstone, more people have killed people than bears have killed people.

Now keep in mind that the park sees about four million visitors every year. All in all, your odds of being injured by a grizzly in Yellowstone are 1 in 2.7 million. And in the North Cascades, Kasworm says, the odds would be even smaller due to lower human and bear population densities.

Despite the grizzlies’ bloodthirsty reputation, the bear’s meat intake makes up less than 30 percent of its diet. The rest consists of plants (more than 100 species in the North Cascades), berries (up to 10,000 per bear per day!), and tubers. In addition to helping control prey species, grizzlies are important grazers, seed-dispersers, and soil-tillers.

Fear of large predators is a tale as old as time, and it’s tough to rationalize with those who feel their lives will be in danger. That’s why ecologist and filmmaker Chris Morgan has made it his mission to talk to people out on the trails and in the towns near the reintroduction territory.

“Those are important voices,” Morgan says of the people who live in grizzly country. “They have concerns, and fair enough. But I think it’s down to people like me and others who work in education and film to provide facts, and perhaps open some minds and put to rest some of the myths.”

Morgan has studied bears for more than 25 years, conducted recapture and satellite tracking research on grizzlies, and as a result has formed a deep respect for them. “They grab my soul,” he says. And while it’s certainly true that these are animals that must never be underestimated, Morgan says he thinks most people would be surprised at how elusive and intelligent grizzlies can be.

Morgan says learning to coexist with large predators is critical to our future relationship with nature, and for those Washingtonians on the fence, their neighbors in Montana can tell them all about it. The FWS has been conducting grizzly bear restoration in the Cabinet Mountains since the early 1990s, and by most accounts, things are going swimmingly. Morgan captures their voices in the film below, along with the story of Irene, a grizzly who has produced at least 10 cubs, who themselves have given birth to two more generations.

The comment period for the proposed plans will remain open for about one more month as the USFWS conducts town hall meetings and online webinars. (FYI: You don’t have to live in Washington to add your opinion.) 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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