Poll shows widespread support for grizzly recovery in North Cascades

Montana authorities say a grizzly bear attacked and killed a bicyclist riding in the Flathead National Forest just outside Glacier National Park.
Montana authorities say a grizzly bear attacked and killed a bicyclist riding in the Flathead National Forest just outside Glacier National Park. Courtesy

A majority of Washington residents support efforts to recover the grizzly bear population in the North Cascades, according to a poll done for Defenders of Wildlife.

The conservation group plans to use the survey’s data to build more support among the public and decision-makers as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service develop a recovery plan, said Elizabeth Ruther, Northwest representative and biologist for Defenders of Wildlife.

The survey, based on interviews with 600 registered voters conducted in May by Tulchin Research, shows 80 percent of responders support “efforts to help the declining population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades recover.” In the Seattle-Tacoma area, that supports rises to 83 percent.

“Our research finds that voters in Washington value grizzly bears as a vital part of our natural heritage and strongly back science-based efforts to help the population in the North Cascades to recover,” Ruther said.

“The science is pretty clear, from the Defenders of Wildlife perspective, that these bears are in real trouble and most likely bears would have to be added to this population if we’re going to make this a successful recovery,” she added.

It was really encouraging to see that people were into having recovery being science based and we should work to recover and prevent their disappearance.

Elizabeth Ruther of Defenders of Wildlife

In February 2015, the two federal agencies began the process to prepare an environmental impact statement that would gauge the impact of restoring the grizzly population in the North Cascade ecosystem. A draft of the plan is expected to be completed by this fall. The plan will outline several alternatives for recovering the bears, including taking no action.

The plan’s recovery zone stretches from the Canadian border to Interstate 90, including the North Cascades National Park and portions of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Ruther said her group is concerned because there are so few grizzly bears in the recovery area. Those bears that are there are having a hard time finding each other, making it difficult to mate. Having so few bears also means having limited genes in the population.

“So it would be prudent to add bears to the population,” Ruther said.

With the process already 16 months old, Ruther said the release of the draft impact statement will be the next big step.

“We’d like an alternative that is science-based and draws from other recovery efforts in the lower 48 states,” she said.

Current status of grizzlies

There are already grizzly bears in the state, it’s just of question of how many.

In the northeast corner of Washington, there are a couple of dozen of grizzly bears that cross back and forth over the border into Idaho, Ruther said.

In the North Cascades, she said, there might be a handful of grizzlies.

“Research indicates that this wilderness landscape is capable of supporting a self-sustaining grizzly bear population,” the agencies wrote in the Federal Register announcing their intent to move forward with the plan.

“However, there has only been one observation of a solitary bear during the past 10 years. Given the low number of grizzly bears, very slow reproductive rate, and other recovery constraints, grizzly bears in the North Cascade Ecosystem are the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the United States today.”

“It’s not a good scene if you’re a grizzly bear,” Ruther said. “It’s a huge area and very rugged. Of the bears that are there, we don’t have a good handle on who’s who (male or female).”

Educational efforts

Monday’s release of the poll results came during the state’s Bear Awareness Week. It also coincided with educational efforts by Defenders of Wildlife and the creation of a new coalition supporting grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades.

Ruther said her group has launched Play Smart, an effort to educate people on how to recreate in bear country.

“We already have 25,000 black bears in Washington,” she said. “We’re launching a campaign to make it common sense on recreating in bear areas.”

In addition to giving presentations through REI, the group has also launched a website, defenders.org/play-smart.

Also joining the educational effort is the newly created Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear. The coalition includes Conservation Northwest, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, National Park Conservation Association, Sierra Club, North Cascades Institute and other groups.

In stating support for the coalition, Rob Smith, Northwest Regional Director of the National Parks Conservation Association, wrote: “National parks and native wildlife go together, and North Cascades National Park needs its grizzly bears for visitors today and for generations to come. The great bears make this national park a spectacular, diverse piece of wild America, and that’s worth protecting.”

The coalition website is northcascadesgrizzly.org.

Encouraged by results

In discussing the poll results and other steps, Ruther said she was surprised by two things.

“Washingtonians view grizzly bears as a vital part of our heritage. That is exciting to me,” she said. “We have entered a time when we can choose which animals will remain on the planet and can do something about that.”

The second is that support for recovering grizzly bears came from across the state and spectrums.

“It was really encouraging to see that people were into having recovery being science-based and we should work to recover and prevent their disappearance,” she said.

“It wasn’t just ‘Oh, we like grizzly bears,’ but that we shouldn’t let them die out on our watch. That is important to hear and heartening.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

Survey findings

Here are some of the highlights from the grizzly bear survey done for the Defenders of Wildlife:

▪ Ninety-one percent of voters agree that “grizzly bears are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.”

▪ Eighty-five percent of voters agree that “efforts to help the North Cascades grizzly bear population to recover should be science-based and led by expert biologists.”

▪ Eighty-one percent agree that “the state of Washington should make every effort to help grizzly bears recover and prevent their disappearance.” That includes a majority (53 percent) who strongly agree that statement.

▪ In the Spokane area, the support for recovering grizzly bears drops to 66 percent.

▪ Only 13 percent of all respondents opposed efforts to recover grizzly bears.