Fewer Than 10 Grizzly Bears Left in Washington—But There’s a Plan to Save Them

The fog was thick and the roads icy, but when a large horse trailer drove under the Roosevelt Arch on its way into Yellowstone National Park in January 1995, hundreds of cheering, smiling faces lined the entrance road to greet its newest residents—eight gray wolves, the first to inhabit the park in nearly 70 years.

It was the culmination of a 20-year battle to reintroduce wolves to the western United States. Full of bitter rhetoric and political posturing, the debate over whether to return canis lupus to central Idaho and Yellowstone had pit the values of New Western environmentalists against those of Old Western ranchers who worried for the safety of their livestock. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act passed nearly unanimously before President Nixon signed it into law. But just a decade later, following the Sagebrush Rebellion and the controversy over the spotted owl during the 1980s, the law and the environmental movement as a whole faced unparalleled scrutiny and criticism.

The wolf issue perfectly exemplified this fall from grace, and today, the symbolic status of large carnivores, including grizzly bears, remains fraught by these same tensions. But on that cold January morning in Yellowstone, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt proudly asserted: “This is a day of redemption and a day of hope. It’s a day when the limits of what is possible have been greatly expanded.”

Yellowstone’s wolves have now fully recovered, successfully expanding across the northern Rocky Mountains and into Washington, Oregon and California. But many Old Westerners are enamored by a creation myth that includes the extirpation of these species and find it difficult to coexist with animals their forefathers systematically eradicated. Just last month, the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it had authorized the killing of a wolf pack known as the Profanity Peak pack after wolves had killed a rancher’s cattle.

But slowly, attitudes are shifting. And now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with support from a number of environmental groups, is seeking to release new grizzly bears into Washington’s North Cascades.

For Washington’s bear advocates to rescue its grizzly population, which has dwindled to fewer than 10 bears, will require the right social, cultural and political as well as ecological conditions. If wolves symbolically undermined the power of the Old West, a new population of grizzly bears would pose just as momentous a challenge, not to mention the public safety concerns wolves do not.

And this will not be the first attempt to reintroduce a population of grizzly bears.

The grizzly bear plan everyone loved

The impending return of wolves to Yellowstone at the dawn of 1995 intensified the controversy between the West’s competing factions. Yet just a few days before the wolves’ release, the new Congress, with the “Contract with America” as its guiding mantra, allocated $250,000 for the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete an environmental impact statement—a process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act—to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Idaho.

Two years earlier, Dan Johnson, a representative for Resource Organization on Timber Supply (ROOTS), an Idaho organization that united labor and timber industry entities to support their collective interests, resisted any talk of returning grizzly bears to the Bitterroots. New wilderness designations and added regulations to protect bull trout and Pacific salmon, in addition to shifting global markets, had already created uncertainty for Idaho’s timber industry.

The last thing Johnson and his colleagues needed was a new population of grizzlies to enter the mix.

For environmentalists, there were multiple reasons to recover the great bear in one of its historic strongholds. The first was obvious—grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and in 1993, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee designated the Bitterroots as a recovery area. Reintroduction was the only practical way to satisfy the legal mandate to recover grizzlies in the region.

Additionally, many grizzly bear advocates viewed a population in the Bitterroots as the best way to connect the genetically isolated populations in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. For some, this ecological incentive was equivalent to motivations steeped in the same “redemption” Babbitt heralded: restoring grizzly bears as an ethical imperative to make up for a century of persecution.

Johnson deeply opposed the prospect of a new grizzly bear population. Yet he had watched how the listing of the spotted owl drastically reduced logging in Oregon and Washington and resolved not to let the same happen in Idaho.

He approached Hank Fischer and Tom France, who represented Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, respectively. By that point, Fischer and France had been working on wolf recovery for more than 15 years with few substantive results to show for it, and they wanted grizzly reintroduction to avoid the same intractable debates that had consumed wolves.

Many viewed this approach as the future of endangered species recovery.
Within a year, the three groups, along with the Intermountain Forest Industries Association, developed a plan—the ROOTS plan—which would have introduced 25 grizzly bears over five years. This population would have been considered “experiment, non-essential,” a designation that relaxes regulations and would have allowed logging to continue. The ROOTS plan also created a citizens’ management committee. Instead of a federal agency directing policy, as with wolves and every other endangered species, a group of 15 appointed citizens would control management decisions.

Because of its support from both environmentalists and industry, something wolves never achieved, the plan quickly won praise from editorial boards and politicians who had side-stepped the wolf debate. The Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune called the plan “so balanced and so fair makes you wonder what these disparate outfits could have come up with if the jobs of saving the Northern spotted owl and Pacific salmon had been theirs from the start.”

Many viewed this approach as the future of endangered species recovery. So despite the fact that wolves’ imminent return to Yellowstone had heightened tensions, many wanted to give the ROOTS coalition an opportunity to realize its bold vision.

Despite initial enthusiasm from western politicians, support waivered as the project moved forward. The plan faced growing opposition from people who either feared for their safety or didn’t trust the federal government, no matter what stipulations and carefully crafted provisions the plan may have contained. Said one critic, “They’re not so interested in preserving the grizzly bear as they are getting control of more land.” Added another, “It’s a known fact that it’s a threat to man. I don’t care about the percentages, it’s dangerous.”

Many of these critics could be classified as Old Westerners, committed to extractive industries. The ideology that drove settlers to subdue and shape the land extended to fearsome animals like wolves and grizzlies. Not only could they threaten settlers’ livelihoods and sometimes their lives, but more importantly, they also seemed to defy human hegemony.

Biologists estimate that between 50,000 and 100,000 bears once roamed the western United States. By the time the bear received protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 fewer than 500 were left.

The Old West wins

Our image of the American West remains rooted in frontier-era romanticizing of the rugged individualism of cowboys, lone lawmen, and the mythic qualities of the landscape. Even in the New West—the economy, culture, and demographic that have arisen over the past 50 years, valuing the region’s public lands for their natural, rather than extractive, qualities—the region’s identity is rooted in an idealized collective memory. Authenticity, derived from working and subjugating the land, has continued to serve as a source of capital. Although the New West has largely shirked the values espoused by those industries, few can shake the region’s fascination with this legacy.

Unfortunately for grizzly bears, few politicians can escape that obsessive devotion to western authenticity either.

Even today, politicians whose constituencies are largely New Western and are not heavily reliant on extractive industries feel the need to pay homage to their states’ Old Western heritage by wearing bolo ties, cowboy boots and hats and being photographed in beat-up trucks. And supporting something as iconoclastic as reintroducing grizzly bears is antithetical to the Old West’s anthropocentric view of the world.

Eventually many formerly supportive elected representatives in Idaho and Montana gravitated toward the Old West. Five years passed after Congress appropriated the initial funds before the Fish and Wildlife Service released the final environmental impact statement. When the Bush Administration took office, it eliminated all future funding.

Within a few years, the entire project had faded into memory.

Sixteen years later, no grizzly bears permanently inhabit the Bitterroots—although some believe a few remnant bears continue to roam its northern reaches. What once stood to become “one of the great endangered species success stories,” according to Defenders of Wildlife’s former president Rodger Schlickeisen, has been relegated to a footnote.

Grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems now exceed 1,500, but the will to coexist with large carnivores has yet to set in the public mind.

In Yellowstone, where grizzly bears stand as one of the park’s most popular attractions, a process to remove Endangered Species Act protections has resumed for the second time in the past decade. Opposed by environmental and tribal groups, this move would allow Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho to allow hunting immediately outside the park’s borders.

Here come the grizzlies again

Populations of wolves and grizzlies are increasing even as the politics created by large carnivores remains murky.

In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service allocated $900,000 in grant money to compensate livestock producers for losses caused by wolves and assist them in using nonlethal deterrents to reduce conflict. Even so, Wyoming state’s refuse to manage wolves as anything other than varmints prompted a 2014 court decision to restore federal protections. New Mexico withdrew from the Mexican wolf recovery program in 2011 and blocks the release of captive wolves even though the wild population’s limited genetic diversity has necessitated these releases. The recent decision to kill the 11 wolves of the Profanity Peak pack in Washington further suggests the continued sway of the state’s ranching industry.

Yet, in the next few years, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to augment the North Cascades’ diminishing grizzly population with new releases.

With a draft environmental impact statement due out later this year, a large number of environmental organizations have come together to support the bear’s recovery. So far, the coalition lacks any member outside the traditional green bloc. But with polls demonstrating support from more than 80 percent of Washington residents, supporters are confident that a robust education campaign will allay any lingering concerns.

One of the strongest arguments for the return of wolves was the presence of what scientists call “trophic cascades.” As a top predator, wolves produce positive benefits that cascade down each level of the ecosystem, positively impacting everything from elk to songbirds to fish. The ecological reach of grizzly bears is shorter, but they are considered an umbrella species. Throughout the year, grizzlies occupy diverse habitats and eat a variety of foods from elk calves to pine nuts. They act as an indicator for the ecosystem. If an area is healthy enough to support grizzly bears, then it can host a wide range of other species as well.

Perhaps we can extend this role just a bit further. In an age when some of our greatest challenges are environmental, our willingness to live alongside an animal that disrupts human supremacy may say a lot about our ability to tackle the problems whose origins rest in the fallacy of our primacy.