Grizzly bears may be coming back to the North Cascades, where the apex predator roamed for thousands of years before human encroachment led their numbers to dwindle. The last confirmed grizzly sighting in the North Cascades was in 1996. Now, federal agencies are seeking public comment as they consider reintroducing grizzlies here.
Over 30 years since the region was first identified as adequate grizzly bear habitat, and three years after then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt scrapped reintroduction plans, a new federal planning process is being conducted by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. After public meetings in Okanogan, Newhalem in Whatcom County, Darrington in Snohomish County and Winthrop in Okanogan County, plus one virtual meeting, a public comment period on the topic remains open until Nov. 13.
What does this potential new backcountry neighbor mean for hikers, backpackers, hunters and anglers along the trails and campsites in this vast patch of Washington wilderness? How will living in grizzly country change the outdoor recreation experience in the Cascades?
Most likely very little, experts say, despite a policy debate that has lasted decades in Washington. But backcountry travelers should still take additional precautions, according to multiple wildlife biologists, naturalists and guides who recreate extensively in grizzly bear country.
In the 1970s, ursus arctos horribilis became one of the first animals listed under the Endangered Species Act, prompting calls for conservation and recovery. The forested mountains of the North Cascades have long been targeted as prime grizzly habitat related to these efforts.
If grizzly reintroduction were to proceed here, only a few bears would arrive at a time. The Fish & Wildlife Service would release three to seven bears annually for up to 10 years. Wildlife biologists hope the bears would then procreate.
The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, one of six in the U.S., is estimated to accommodate 280 bears — and it would take several decades for these slow-to-reproduce mammals to ever reach those numbers. (Separately, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, a First Nations tribal council in British Columbia, may relocate grizzly bears to recovery habitat immediately north of the U.S.-Canada border as early as 2024, and those bears could migrate into the Washington portion of the North Cascades).
“The probability of ever seeing a grizzly bear is extremely low,” said Missoula, Mont.-based Chris Servheen, president and board chair of the Montana Wildlife Federation and co-chair of the North American Bears Expert Team. “You’re much more likely to get hit by lightning or killed in your car on the way to the trailhead than you are to be injured by a grizzly bear.”
By comparison, over 1,000 grizzly bears are in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Since 1979, the risk of a grizzly bear injury in Yellowstone National Park is 1 in every 2.7 million visits, according to National Park Service data.
Deadly human-grizzly encounters do occur, however infrequently. A grizzly bear killed two experienced backcountry campers in Banff National Park in Alberta in September. Another fatally mauled a woman near Yellowstone in July. Idaho hunters killed grizzly bears in self-defense in two separate September incidents.
Servheen has spent 54 years living in grizzly country. As a former bear biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service, he has had a front-row seat to pitched battles over grizzly reintroduction. In 1993, he attended 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, according to the Northwest News Network.
For recreationists, Servheen’s advice is simple. “The first thing to do when you hike in grizzly country is be aware,” he said.
Awareness, to Servheen, means not wearing headphones, oblivious to the world, but rather staying in tune with your surroundings. He recommends asking yourself questions, like: Are you in a meadow with good visibility or are you on a brushy trail where you can’t see around the next bend? Are you hiking near a noisy stream that might inhibit a wild animal from hearing you approach? Have you seen any bear tracks or scat on the ground?
Grizzly tracks are a sure sign for Al McEwan, a fourth-generation farmer and logger in the Pemberton Valley north of Whistler, B.C., who volunteers with the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative. McEwan estimates he has had 50-plus encounters with grizzlies.
“Look for long claws on the front feet. The size is pretty impressive compared to a black bear,” he said. “If you’re in snow or mud where the track is easily seen, then you should be able to tell right away whether there’s a grizzly or not.”
These kinds of clues can help hikers avoid surprising a bear. Other behaviors to adopt include making noise, like hand clapping at regular intervals, especially on trails without good sight lines. Some hikers wear bear bells, although the constant jingle can prove annoying to yourself and other hikers.
Wildlife biologists recommend carrying bear spray as an effective, nonlethal deterrent.
“I carry bear spray like I carry a headlamp and first aid kit,” said McEwan, who packs bear spray even when he has a hunting rifle. “It’s just part of the outfit. I’ve always got it on the chest band of my pack, ready to rock and roll.”
A 2008 fact sheet issued by Fish & Wildlife found that bear spray was more effective than firearms in defending against grizzly attacks. Nevertheless, Wild Montana stewardship director Matt Bowser, who recreates extensively in grizzly bear country, said carrying a handgun is a popular choice for bear defense among recreationists in his state. Carrying a firearm is permitted in North Cascades National Park; grizzly bear reintroduction would not change those rules.
Servheen’s other key advice for avoiding grizzly encounters is to leave a clean camp. Store food properly in a secure, bear-proof container. Hang it up at least 10 feet high and at least 100 yards from your tent. Avoid spilling food on the ground near your campsite.
Such behaviors are basics of good outdoors stewardship and part-and-parcel of the Leave No Trace backcountry ethic. Not only will these practices help keep grizzly bears away, they will keep any kind of wildlife, including pests like mice and raccoons, from getting into your precious backcountry food supplies.
North Cascades National Park has no plans to install bear wires for hanging food or to make any changes to existing frontcountry or backcountry campsites, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife spokesperson Andrew LaValle.
Hunters who make a fresh kill should separate the gut pile at least 100 yards from the meat when field-dressing their prey. A grizzly bear is more likely to be drawn first to the pungent innards of an elk than to the carcass. Hayden, Idaho-based hunting guide Bob Legasa, who survived a grizzly bear attack in Montana five years ago with a broken arm and a scratched face, now keeps his head on a swivel and his bear spray at the ready when hunting in grizzly country.
“A gunshot is like a dinner bell for grizzly bears,” he said.
Based on anecdotal evidence from hunters in Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, Legasa believes grizzly-human encounters are on the rise. He also noted that wildlife conservation can adversely affect some forms of outdoor reaction. For example, a swath of Idaho Panhandle National Forests is closed to snowmobiling in order to protect caribou habitat.
LaValle said North Cascades National Park does not anticipate trail or campground closures as a result of grizzly bear reintroduction.
Ultimately, Servheen stressed that the possibility of a North Cascades grizzly encounter for recreationists is remote.
“The probability of bears in your camp, even if you are a messy camper, is almost zero,” he said. “It’s not like if you screw up you are going to have bears on top of you.”
But if the North Cascades once again become home to grizzly bears, an ounce of prevention will surely be worth a pound of cure.