Bear necessities

The scarce, elusive Cascade grizzlies go to court for a little respect—and room.

“IF THERE ARE SPECIES IN more troublethan these bears, I’d like to see them,” growls Joe Scott, conservation director of the Bellingham-based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance (NWEA). The bears in question are perhaps the smallest and, considering their parlous state, most neglected ursine population left on the continent: the estimated 10 to 20 grizzlies that somehow hang on, by their impressive claws, in Washington’s Cascades. The secret to their survival is an elusiveness and discretion remarkable in so large and fearsome a carnivore. They’ve apparently snuck, unseen, across at least one interstate and two other cross-mountain highways; Jim Daniels, the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s endangered-species coordinator for Western Washington, says they’ve been spotted as far south as the Mount Rainier and Cle Elum areas.

See end of article for related links.

Unlike their more numerous brethren to the north, the Cascade grizzlies haven’t had violent (or many other) encounters with humans. Despite a number of clear, confirmed sightings, they’ve never been photographed. They’ve never been captured and fitted with the radio collars that would disclose just where they go. But in late February they went where the snail darter, spotted owl, and Northern lynx have gone before: to federal court. The Ecosystem Alliance sued in Seattle to force the federal government to treat the Cascade grizzlies as the endangered critters the feds concede they are.

The Cascade bears and a thousand or so other grizzlies in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Eastern Washington are all that remain of perhaps 100,000 that once lorded it over the western United States. In 1975, two years after the Endangered Species Act was passed, Ursus arctos horribilis was declared “threatened” throughout the Lower 48. Sightings gradually confirmed that, contrary to assumptions (and some ranchers’ claims even today), this Bigfoot had not vanished from the Cascades. In 1990 the NWEA petitioned to have the tiny, isolated Cascade grizzly population upgraded to “endangered” status. In 1991 the Fish & Wildlife Service determined that such a listing was “warranted but precluded.” USFWS officials say this triage is forced by budget constraints and other endangered species’ “higher priority”: “You have to look at what species are in really dire straits,” says Sharon Rose of the Wildlife Service’s Rocky Mountain regional headquarters in Denver, which has the mandate for grizzly-bear recovery in the Northwest as well. The grizzlies “were receiving protection under the ‘threatened’ status, more so than animals that weren’t listed.”

But the USFWS doesn’t say what other species have bumped the grizzlies from attention, furthering the conservationists’ chagrin: “They don’t give specifics,” notes Scott. “It’s just this vague escape clause.” But it appears that funds that would have gone to overdue grizzly study and protection have gone instead to wolf reintroduction in other parts of the West—for reasons of politics as much as conservation. “In 1995 our entire [Western and Central Washington] budget for wolf and bear recovery was shifted over to Boise for Idaho wolves,” says Jim Daniels, the USFWS’s endangered-species coordinator for Western and Central Washington. From 1995 to ’96 Congress declared a moratorium on new species listings. And last year, US Rep. Norm Dicks got enthused about restoring wolves to the Olympic Peninsula (in his district), and got $300,000 appropriated for a feasibility study that might run to $1 million. (George Nethercutt and Jack Metcalf haven’t yet shown the same enthusiasm for their grizzly constituents.) Wildlife scientists and conservationists alike grumbled at this outlay to bring wolves back where they haven’t been for six decades, while cutting funds for existing populations of scarce and little-understood Cascade wolves and grizzlies. NWEA executive director Mitch Friedman sums up this incongruity in a homey sound bite: “Why start another batch of cookies and let the ones that are already in the oven burn?”

Adding insult, even as they withheld funds for Cascade grizzlies, the feds spent them studying whether to downgrade the larger Yellowstone bear population from “threatened.” Nevertheless, the Wildlife Service has done what even the Ecosystem Alliance’s Scott calls “excellent” groundwork on prospects for grizzly recovery around here. It found that the North Cascades could probably support 200 to 400 big bears, and that there was strong public support for bringing them back.

AND SO THE ECOSYSTEM ALLIANCE has sued to force the government to undertake the grizzly listing and recovery they found “warranted” seven years ago; its motion for summary judgment will be heard April 3. The effects on road building and logging of a full grizzly effort, together with a linx listing, could be dramatic.

But the Cascade grizzlies’ prospects may actually hinge more on another lawsuit over an outwardly different battle. The state Department of Natural Resources has been walking a delicate line in managing the Loomis State Forest, near the center of Washington’s northern border, which contains the largest and most ecologically valuable roadless areas in state control. DNR’s much-touted Loomis Landscape Plan, a long-term harvesting schedule, has pleased no one. Okanogan County, rural school districts that receive timber-sale funds, and timber interests sued and appealed to the Legislature to “maximize” Loomis harvesting, claiming too many trees would otherwise be lost to pine beetles. They lost last year.

Green groups, including the NWEA, meanwhile sued to reduce Loomis cutting and preserve the few remaining roadless areas, which will otherwise be sold this year. They cite the DNR’s own findings as to the low economic value of the Loomis’ lodgepole pine, and its much higher habitat value. Now a mediated settlement of that suit appears near; the greens might buy the contested areas or pay to have them conserved in some sort of trust. That would be good news for the grizzlies; the Loomis is a strategic connector for the adjacent Pasayten Wilderness and the Canadian Cascades, where bears are more numerous though less protected. Land first, listing later.

Related Links:

The NW Ecosystem Alliance on Loomis Forest


Audubon story on the lynx