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News / Sports / Outdoors

Grizzlies once roamed the Cascades; some people want them to return

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: December 3, 2023, 3:03pm

STETATTLE CREEK, North Cascades — Bubbles tumbled and danced on the surface of this creek as stones interrupted the flow of the aquamarine water, once home to spring Chinook and steelhead, below the bank where Scott Schuyler and his daughter Janelle walked in early November.

Stetattle was derived from stəbtabəl’ (stub-tahb-elh), or grizzly bear, in the Lushootseed language spoken by the Upper Skagit people who lived on these lands for at least 10,000 years.

But grizzlies haven’t lived here for decades.

Today, federal agencies have offered up three potential plans for grizzlies’ future in the North Cascades; two include reintroducing the bears to the area. Indigenous nations in support of the effort point to the bears’ long-rooted history and human coexistence in the region that far predates European settlement. Other tribes have joined large landowners like ranchers in opposing the effort, arguing a return of the apex predator would threaten their current way of life.

“I’ve had conversations with friends who are avid hikers up and down the North Cascades and they have their strong opinions — they don’t want bears encroaching on their recreational time,” said Janelle Schuyler, a young member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and an environmental activist who has led efforts to restore Skagit River salmon. “I just view it completely differently. We’re in their homeland.”

She envisions a future here where healthy salmon, bears and people again coexist.

But some worry that window has passed.

“We’re advocating for the way of life we have currently,” said Nino Maltos II, chair of the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe. “We’d like to see more salmon, to bring those numbers back. But this is putting an obstacle in our everyday lives.”

As debate ensues in the U.S., the bears could be reintroduced in the Canadian portions of the North Cascades as soon as next year and will almost certainly wander across the international border.

“Impossible to separate them”

Upper Skagit peoples’ origin story says the transformer came to the upper reaches of the Skagit River, here in Stetattle Valley, made the conditions right to support the people and gifted the people with the ability to communicate with animals.

For thousands of years, Upper Skagit people followed networks of trails through dense, towering ancient cedars and Douglas fir to gather berries, roots and cedar bark through this valley.

A spear point, estimated to be up to 9,000 years old, was unearthed here in the North Cascades. This long-rooted history is also evident in the curling trunks of cedars where bark was harvested to make clothing, cooking baskets and fishing nets.

They would hunt mountain goats for food and use the wool for blankets. Deer and elk provided meat and the skins were made into clothing. And sometimes, they would hunt grizzlies. Upper Skagit people saw them as spiritual beings that conferred hunting prowess on those who possessed the bear’s guardian spirit.

Grizzlies roamed much of the West before colonization. A keystone species, bears are known to till and aerate soil as they search for potato-like roots like Alpine sweetvetch, munch on berries, and later deposit the seeds through their scat. The omnivores love to snatch big, juicy salmon from the river and will steal kills from other predators.

In just over a century — the blink of an eye in geologic time — this land, and humans’ relationship with it, was transformed. Settlers built the mighty Skagit into a machine river — dammed to allow people to control the stop and start of its flows — to serve electricity to populations more than 100 miles away. Salmon and oceangoing trout were severed from these pristine reaches of the river.

Over time, white settlers wiped the creek’s namesake bears off the landscape, too. Beginning in the mid-1800s, they killed more than 3,000 for their pelts while miners and homesteaders killed countless others. The big brown bears, with a hump of heavy muscle in their shoulders, never bounced back.

No one knows how many grizzly bears remain. The last verified sighting in the U.S. North Cascades was more than two decades ago, and only two sightings have been verified on the British Columbia side of the mountains since.

Some of the best intact grizzly habitat still remains here. It includes vast protected wilderness, habitat for dens and hundreds of species of plants, animals and insects the bears feast on.

Scientists have found that under several climate change scenarios, future habitat quality remains the same or slightly improved in the North Cascades, offering enough to support up to 289 female bears. Projected declines in snowpack would result in a decrease in vegetation at the highest elevations, but an increase in grizzly bear foraging habitat in high-elevation meadows.

The bears’ primary threat remains humans. Up to 85% of bear deaths across British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho and Montana have come from human action.

Upper Skagit people coexisted and coevolved with the bears for at least 10,000 years. Today, Scott Schuyler, a policy representative for the tribe who often leads negotiations on conservation efforts, and other Upper Skagit leaders are passionate advocates for plans to reintroduce the bears to the North Cascades.

“It’s very powerful to be here in this area where our ancestors once lived,” Schuyler said, as the Skagit River twisted and churned past the stone he balanced his boots on. “And hopefully again, we’ll see restoration occur not only for the grizzly bear, but for the river, too.”

“The tribe’s history, culture and identity is so intertwined with Grizzly Bears and the [North Cascades Ecosystem] that it is impossible to separate them,” Marilyn Scott, chair of the Upper Skagit, wrote to the National Park Service.

Some tribes — including Spokane, Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation — also consider the grizzly bear sacred, and in 2016 signed a treaty of solidarity aimed to protect and reintroduce grizzly bears across their historic range.

As the public comment period closed on three potential options for the bears’ future this month, federal agencies are drawing up a final plan. It’s slated to be presented this spring.

Under both reintroduction options outlined in the plan, about three to seven grizzly bears would be released into the North Cascades each year over the course of five to 10 years. The goal is to establish an initial population of 25 grizzly bears.

One option outlined in the plan would allow grizzly bears to be managed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and permit some to be captured, moved or killed only under specific circumstances, like the defense of life and scientific or research activities.

The second is looser and would allow landowners to call on the federal government to remove bears if they pose a threat to livestock, for instance.

“Where a lot of us live”

About 43 miles downstream, the 300-person Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe is nestled in the foothills of the North Cascades near the lumber town of Darrington and next to the Sauk River, where leaders waved from the grassy banks near their homes to fishermen paddling an inflatable boat.

The tribe has been vocal in opposition to the reintroduction of grizzlies.

“They love feasting on the spawning grounds,” Chair Nino Maltos II said. “The spawning grounds happen to be right behind where a lot of us live.”

The tribe has fought David-and-Goliath-esque court battles to challenge the lack of fish passage at Seattle City Light’s dams on the Skagit River, and participated in efforts to restore dozens of acres of salmon habitat and to monitor and recover mountain goat and elk populations.

But in the case of the bears, members are advocating for their current way of life, Maltos said. The bears’ return would feel like an additional obstacle to exercising their treaty rights — gathering berries, fishing and hunting — in the mountains, said Demi Maltos, who sits on the tribal council.

Things have changed a lot since the bears were functionally extirpated from the area. About two dozen mountain goats remain near Darrington, and six elk, according to Michael Grant, wildlife biologist for the tribe. Fish are in decline. So is the tribe’s population.

“Pre-contact, we were 8,000 people,” Sauk-Suiattle Councilmember Kevin Lenon said. “We are more endangered as a Native people than these apex predators.”

Leaders are fearful of the bears reentering an ecosystem humans have since encroached on. They’re nervous about living in the bears’ backyards, and the risks of encounters while they exercise their treaty rights, though statistical chances cited in National Park Service data are low.

The small tribe isn’t alone.

The Obama administration announced in August 2014 a three-year process to study grizzly reintroduction. In 2017, Department of the Interior officials, without clear explanation, halted progress on the recovery efforts.

The effort was reignited in 2018 by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and subsequently scrapped in a 2020 meeting in Omak, led by new Interior Secretary David Bernhardt with Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and leaders of agricultural groups alongside him.

Ranchers have been among the most vocal opponents along the way.

In 1993, they commandeered an infamously contentious public meeting in Okanogan County, where ranchers expressed concern about the risk of grizzly bear attacks on livestock. Thirty years later, Okanogan County residents expressed similar sentiments at a federal public meeting Oct. 30.

But this go at bringing the bears back, federal agencies are offering an option that would designate the bears as a nonessential experimental population and give agencies “greater management flexibility should conflict situations arise.”

Under that designation, some of the rules under the Endangered Species Act are relaxed, creating potential for landowners to receive federal permission to kill or relocate a bear and avoid punishment if done accidentally in certain situations.

“They just can’t recover on their own”

Meanwhile, just north of the U.S. border, the Okanagan Nation Alliance’s efforts to recover the bears, known to the Syilx (silks) people as ki?lawna? (kee-law-naw), are underway.

About a decade ago, the Chiefs Executive Council declared grizzly bears endangered and protected in Syilx Territory, and mandated the Okanagan Nation Alliance to take recovery actions, particularly in the North Cascades. In 2018, they passed a resolution pledging to work with neighboring First Nations to recover the bears in Southwest British Columbia.

“The reality is, the normal for the landscape is to have grizzly bears on it,” said Cailyn Glasser, Okanagan Nation Alliance natural resources manager. “It’s not new. What’s new and strange for that ecosystem is not having grizzlies for the last 50 or 70 years.”

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The connection between Syilx people and grizzlies goes back millennia, Glasser said in a phone call. Grizzly Bear is the caretaker of all of the resources on the landscape. People, like the bears, depend on huckleberries, and salmon and other shared resources. The bears are the stewards — their existence is imperative to the health of the ecosystem, Glasser said.

Okanagan Nation Alliance leaders have since worked with elders, knowledge keepers, hunters and gatherers from Syilx member communities to understand and preserve traditional knowledge about kiɁlawnaɁ, to better understand the species’ habitat needs and begin work to preserve st̕xałq, or black huckleberry, that the bears rely on.

They will soon launch an education campaign centered on grizzlies’ role on the landscape, and the history of humans’ coexistence with other charismatic predators.

In the mid-1990s, about seven decades after the last wolf pack was killed in Yellowstone National Park, officials relocated 31 gray wolves from western Canada to the park. It was an effort championed by the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, researchers and environmental groups, and at the time received the largest number of public comments on any federal proposal — only to be challenged by grizzlies in the North Cascades.

From 1995 to 2003 officials found wolves preyed on livestock outside the park much less than expected, killing 256 sheep and 41 cattle. The wolves caused a “trophic cascade” of ecological change; the decrease in elk population helped increase beaver populations and bring back aspen and other vegetation.

The bears could be moved into the Canadian portion of the North Cascades Ecosystem as soon as next year, but it’s recognized that partnership and collaboration with government partners, on both sides of the border, is important.

Glasser said Okanagan leaders hope to operate as a transboundary team alongside those leading the efforts in the U.S. They may not amend their plans based on what’s happening south of the border, but leaders want to collaborate, if possible.

If the bears were to wander south across the international border — as they most certainly will — and establish a population before U.S. agencies establish their rule to provide management flexibility, the U.S. would lose that ability, said U.S. Fish & Wildlife spokesperson Andrew LaValle.

“On both sides of the border, grizzly bears were persecuted at a rate that decimated the population,” Glasser said. “They just can’t recover on their own.”