Grizzly population a bear of an issue

By March 18, 2015 February 15th, 2016 No Comments

March 17–Q: What do marijuana and grizzly bear management have in common?

A: Each could ultimately lead to a showdown of Washington’s state rights vs. federal government authority.

Marijuana’s legality in Washington flies in the face of its standing with the U.S. Department of Justice, which rather than flexing its jurisdictional muscle has opted for a watch-and-wait approach.

Will Washington state legislators do the same should the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decide to start relocating grizzly bears into the state as early as 2017?

Federal and state agencies are developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to determine the best option for reinvigorating the grizzly population within the state. Relocating animals from elsewhere into the North Cascades, the state’s best grizzly habitat, is one of the options being considered.

The feds have already done just that in the Cabinet Mountains of northwest Montana. Says Chris Serveen, the federal service’s grizzly recovery coordinator, “We have the skills and knowledge to do this.”

Washington state law, though, is very specific about not doing this.

While state officials are to “fully participate in all discussions and negotiations” with federal agencies, reads RCW 77.12.035, grizzly bears “shall not be transplanted or introduced into the state.”

Bring in the lawyers

Grizzly bears are listed under the Endangered Species Act, which requires the federal wildlife service to restore their population in areas where they once thrived.

“If we’re going to restore this population, we’ve got to do more than we’re doing now,” Serveen says. “We’ve seen that (by) doing nothing over the past 30 years, this population has evaporated.”

Doing something, though, means making that tough sell to Washington legislators who see a public-relations and voting-public nightmare in this 500-pound meat-eater with claws. Even the grizzly’s species name — Ursus arctos horribilis — evokes an image no less unsettling than the tabloid-worthy photographs of grizzlies baring their teeth that opponents will almost certainly dredge up to argue against importing them.

The EIS process began this month with six public “open houses,” one of them last week in Cle Elum, to assess public response and gauge alternatives. Reintroduction being just one of several options in the process, which is expected to take two or even three years.

“I hope between now and then clear heads will prevail,” says Lorna Smith, executive director of Western Wildlife Outreach, “and the state’s response won’t be dictated by fear-mongering, which goes on so much in Olympia.”

And if it does again? What will happen when push comes to jurisdictional shove?

“I think (the issue of state vs. federal authority) is going to be addressed sooner rather than later,” says Bruce Botka, a spokesman with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“And this is where I say I’m not a lawyer, but I guarantee you there’s going to be some lawyers involved in this conversation.”

Sightings rare

Upwards of 50,000 grizzly bears once lived in the lower 48 states; now there may be barely 1,000. How many of those are in Washington is simply not known. Five may be too high a guess.

A decade ago there were believed to be as many as 20 grizzlies in the 13,600-square-mile North Cascades ecosystem, slightly more than a third of which lies on the Canadian side of the border. The official estimate on the British Columbia side is now just six.

“One really common misconception is that British Columbia is very full of (grizzly) bears that are kind of quivering at the border,” says National Park Service bear biologist Anne Braaten. “They do cross the border; they don’t recognize human borders. But there’s extremely few grizzly bears up there.”

On the U.S. side, meanwhile, verifiable sightings have been rare.

In 1993, a timber-company biologist found in the mud tracks of was very probably a sow grizzly with a cub 25 miles west of Mount Rainier. Three years later, a bear biologist observed a grizzly on the south side of Glacier Peak.

In 1998 or 1999, a Yakima hiker’s extensive description of a bear he saw at Crow Creek Basin in the Norse Peak Wilderness was deemed by a Forest Service bear expert to be, indeed, a grizzly. In 2003, a grizzly was seen crossing a ranch near Chesaw in north central Washington, barely five miles from the Canadian border.

And, of course, photographs taken in October 2010 by a hiker of a grizzly in the North Cascades and published across the country were hailed in some corners as a significant event in U.S. grizzly recovery.

But was it really so significant?

The grizzly was near enough to the Canadian border “that he could be a dual citizen,” Braaten says. “He could have a home range of 300 square miles, and we could be part of it.

“We don’t know that there is (a mate) — however, I think it would be arrogant to say we know about the one bear in 13,000 square miles.”

Slow to reproduce

Restoring grizzly bears to a viable population size, though — in Washington or anywhere else — is a difficult task.

Grizzlies reproduce at a rate lower than almost any other North American mammal. They don’t reach sexual maturity for at least five years, and a female will produce, on average, one or two cubs every three years — with no guarantees that either or both will survive to adulthood. Adult males sometimes kill offspring; death can also come from lack of available food or, most often, from humans with guns.

In considering what might work to bolster the grizzlies in the North Cascades, though, Serveen points to the federal wildlife service’s successful restoration of the Cabinet Mountains grizzly population.

There were an estimated 5 to 15 bears in 1990 when the service began a slow process of transplanting 14 bears there, usually two per year, always females, always radio-collared to be able to monitor their movements.

“Now there’s about 45 bears in that system, and the bears we’ve put in have reproduced, and their offspring have reproduced,” Serveen said. “None of these bears had any conflict with people. And that’s a much smaller ecosystem than (the North Cascades).”

Are grizzly bears’ minimal presence in Washington’s North Cascades, though, critical enough to merit bringing in more bears to boost the population? Could that be going over the top?

“How can you be over the top in recovering species?” muses Bob Tuck of Selah, a former state fish and wildlife commissioner. “If you have a Swiss watch that can keep time down to a nanosecond, does that watch work without all its parts? The answer is no.

“Ecosystems are the same way. They’re far more complex than that watch. They need all their parts.”

Bears and livestock

There has been some emotional blowback at some of the EIS process’ open-house meetings — notably in Winthrop and Okanogan, nearest to the North Cascades — with the biggest objections coming from livestock owners.

“That’s a legitimate concern,” Serveen says. “Will there be conflict? Will bears get into the livestock?”

Any bears relocated into the North Cascades “would be bears with no history of conflict with people, and they’d be in very remote areas,” he says. “The majority of bears don’t kill livestock, and if we did have a bear that got into conflict, we’d get it out of there. We’d remove it.”

The likelihood of such a scofflaw bear, though, is minimal.

“Frankly, our grizzly bears aren’t going to get into trouble,” says Smith, whose Western Wildlife Outreach began in 2004 as the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project but two years expanded its focus to include coexistence with black bears, cougars and gray wolves.

“There’s so few of them,” Smith says. “We know they’re way up in the backcountry because we’re having trouble finding them, and that’s where they’d be put in. They’re just not going to get down and get into trouble in human communities. They’ve have absolutely no incentive to go looking for livestock.”

Or for humans, though Smith and other grizzly-restoration advocates recommend taking appropriate precautions while hiking in bear country.

“Having bear spray along is like wearing a seat belt in your car: You may never need it, but it’s good to have along just in case,” she says. “If you had to use it against a bear, you’re going to walk away, the bear’s going to walk away, and the bear’s going to walk away a much wiser animal — thinking, wow, I’d better stay away from those two-legged creatures.”

Legal battle lines

Most of the very rare bear attacks on people aren’t predatory in nature, but are in fact defensive — a response to being surprised, or feeling the need to defend cubs. Once the perceived threat is over, the “attack” typically ends.

“Actually, large carnivores make pretty good neighbors. There’s been so few problems between humans and carnivores,” Smith says. “With a human population of more than 400 million (in North American), we have roughly 1.5 deaths a year (attributed) to any kind of carnivore — grizzly bears, black bears and cougars.

“Statistically it’s not even a blip on the chart. But, of course, those are what get the headlines.”

So, too, will any process that calls for bringing in grizzly bears from elsewhere — Canada, say — and releasing them into Washington’s wild country.

And it could generate more than headlines. It could establish legal battle lines. Should translocation emerge from the EIS process as the optimal alternative, state and federal wildlife agencies will find themselves on opposite sides of the issue — and with no precedent on which to rely.

Says Scott McCorquodale, Yakima-based regional wildlife program manager with the state wildlife department, “It’s totally uncharted territory.”

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