Perhaps you’ve seen a grizzly bear at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park or in a nature film or photograph. This iconic animal has lived in our region for thousands of years, a symbol of our heritage and a key player in a diverse ecosystem. But a sighting in the wild is very rare.
In the 19th century, an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears roamed North America. Today, fewer than 10 are believed to remain in the North Cascades – so few that the species is at risk of local extinction.
That’s why the Board of Park Commissioners — the elected leaders who set policy for Metro Parks Tacoma — voted Feb. 27 to support a federal plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to remote areas of the North Cascades. This region spans 9,800 square miles and features some of the best grizzly bear habitat in the world.
Federal officials recently released a draft plan with four alternatives for restoration, including a “no action” alternative. The science is clear that taking no action will result in grizzly bears going locally extinct.
We endorse Alternative C, which strikes a balance of meeting the needs of grizzly bear recovery and the needs of people. Under this alternative, wildlife biologists would slowly release grizzly bears into remote areas of North Cascades National Park and other nearby public lands over five to 10 years, with an initial goal of 25 bears.
Alternative C relies on best science practices and draws upon the experience of wildlife biologists who’ve been working to restore the grizzly bear population in northwest Montana for more than 30 years. That experience has shown that reintroducing a consistent number of bears, when combined with deliberate pacing and choices over population demographics, offers the most effective approach to establishing a viable population.
We consider the grizzly bear one of the great engineers of the natural world, helping to cultivate a diverse ecosystem that benefits humans and other species. Grizzly bears spread seeds from plants on which they feed and distribute marine and aquatic nutrients from fish. Their prolific digging also helps aerate soils at high elevations.
But their small numbers in the 9,800-square-mile North Cascades recovery zone make it nearly impossible for bears to find each other and breed.
Some communities or recreational enthusiasts may express concern that an increasing bear population could threaten their safety. However, the potential for having an adverse encounter with a grizzly bear is extremely low.
Outdoor recreation is compatible with grizzly bears, as long as people use precautions and common sense to keep clean camps and avoid surprising bears along trails. Hundreds of thousands of people hike, fish, hunt, camp and enjoy grizzly bear habitat every year with very few conflicts.
What’s more, the presence of grizzly bears potentially could attract more visitors to North Cascades National Park, as has occurred at Yellowstone National Park, thus creating a boon for both the environment and local economies.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are soliciting public comment on their draft plan through Tuesday, March 14. Public participation is critical, and we urge you to take a few minutes and submit an online comment in support of grizzly bears and specifically Alternative C. (Go to nwtrek.org/grizzlybears.)
Northwest Trek has been a strong voice on behalf of grizzly bears since our bear exhibit opened more than two decades ago. The recent death of longtime resident grizzly bear Denali inspires us to work even harder to advocate for the protection of this extraordinary species in the wild.
Restoring the population of the North Cascades grizzly bear demonstrates our collective commitment to a native Northwest species, and our stewardship of the natural world. We must act now to ensure grizzly bears will continue to live in our region for generations to come.
Alan Varsik leads Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium as the interim director of zoological and environmental education for Metro Parks Tacoma.