We should be afraid of grizzlies. But we shouldn’t let our fear get in the way of doing the right thing. There’s plenty of room in the wide-open North Cascades for the grizzly bear.
MOST PEOPLE TREMBLE. Some people pray. Others panic and run. My preferred reaction to this particular too-close-for-comfort encounter with a large grizzly bear was to lie through my teeth.
“Is that a grizzly?” my friend Linda, standing immediately behind me on a trail above the village of St. Mary, in Montana’s Glacier National Park, wanted to know.
It was a logical question, given the day’s events. At the park gate, we were handed the obligatory “Large, Vicious Carnivores That Might Kill You” pamphlet, which I had been dumb enough to pass into the back seat. Many questions ensued.
I dutifully assured my friends that it was more likely they would win the Powerball jackpot than encounter a grizzly bear on day-hiking trails in Glacier.
So naturally, three hours later, I glanced up to see the very beast in question lumbering down the same trail we were headed up.
“Is that a grizzly?” Linda hissed again, as I held my hand out to stop our party.
“No,” I shot back.
Of course it was a grizzly. I had seen them up close before, and knew well the difference from a black bear. And this one was only about 30 yards away. But given the skittishness of my group, I reasoned that nothing good could possibly come from getting all truthy about species identification.
Instincts kicked in. I waved my arms and shouted: “Whoa bear!” “Hey bear!” Just to make sure the bear saw us — and knew where to go for its next meal.
The bear duly noted this and kept right on walking in our direction. I yelled again. Same result.
Like any other logical outdoorsman in this situation, I decided I must photograph the bear.
Keeping eyes locked on the bruin, I grabbed the camera hanging around my neck and attempted — unsuccessfully — to swap the short lens with a telephoto from a fanny pack. I looked down for an instant to negotiate the swap, then looked up. The bear was nowhere to be seen.
Not good, losing track of the bear, which clearly had moseyed into a clump of aspens. Which one? It mattered. A lot.
Then I saw it, poking its head from the brambles, watching me. I raised my camera and fired off a couple shaky, brown-blur-producing frames. Only then did I turn to tell my friends we should probably retreat.
They were already long gone. I heard the voice of Linda, drifting on the Rocky Mountains wind from a half-mile down the hill: “Ron! Get the hell out of there!”
I did. The bear did not pursue. I filed the episode away with a handful of other memorable occasions when, as an outdoor writer; guidebook author; and guy who loves to poke around in the woods of Montana, Alberta and Alaska, I’ve come close enough to grizzlies to get serious flop sweats.
Why does this bear encounter, probably 20 years ago, matter to the rest of you, now? Because there’s a one-in-a-million chance it could happen to you in the next decade, right here in the North Cascades. And whether that is a good or bad thing is, at the moment, an open and important question.
BACK IN ST. MARY, we reported that bear to a ranger whose name (I know, but it’s true) was Woody Shade, and who might not have trusted our grizzly ID. But the professional wildlife photographer standing within earshot certainly perked up.
This guy had been in the nearby Bob Marshall Wilderness for weeks, hiking in rough terrain, intentionally hanging out in known grizzly haunts, hoping to photograph Ursus arctos horribilis. He saw not a one.
That’s a shame, I said: We just ran into one up this little tourist trail, not an hour from here. He promptly tore out in that direction.
This is the thing about grizzly bear encounters. They’re impossible to predict. People who try to get in a bear’s way often fail. And those wishing for everything but a bear run-in sometimes “succeed.”
Is it possible that a reintroduction of grizzly bears in the North Cascades will lead to human/bear encounters? Of course. Even probable. But it’s also true that 99 percent of them likely will end the way mine did in Montana.
We might finally find out: If all goes according to plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the midst of an environmental-impact statement, next year could recommend transplanting a handful of young grizzlies into the North Cascades, where no known, stable population still exists. (It has become clear that the grizzly, long since hunted to near-extinction here, is not going to repopulate the region on its own from the north, as did the recently returned gray wolf.)
The long-simmering plan would have to survive predictable political bleating by a vocal minority of rural state residents wary of federal intrusion into their backyards. But this politically fueled brushfire, fanned by the recent return of the wolf, is likely to have less traction with regard to bears. Livestock predation from grizzlies is relatively rare. Beyond that, it is difficult to deny that the North Cascades — the only one of six U.S. designated grizzly zones without a viable population — contains some of the best bear habitat in the Lower 48.
The upshot: Some bears could be roaming the high country within five to 10 years.
But perspective is critical: Initial transplants would be single digits, in a largely roadless ecosystem spanning more than 2 million acres, just on our side of the border. Joe Scott, the grizzly specialist at Conservation Northwest, which has spearheaded the effort to bring back the bear, says most opponents don’t understand how slowly grizzlies reproduce.
“A success story in the Cascades, in 10 to 50 years, would be maybe 100 bears,” he says. That’s roughly the population of grizzlies that prompted the feds to list the creature as endangered in the Yellowstone ecosystem, an area of comparable size. More than 600 grizzlies live there today — amid a throng of year-round tourists never to be equaled in the North Cascades.
To his credit, Scott is not among those prone to whipping out the “you’ll-never-ever-see-one!” defense to the weak-kneed backpackers among us. Of course you might see one. That is the point, and in fact the hope, of bear advocates, who struggle to drive home this message: The notion that grizzlies and humans cannot coexist is based largely on irrational fear, driven by coverage of the rare-exception bear encounter (such as the much-publicized death of a Yellowstone National Park employee hiking this summer) that can turn fatal for both bruin and human.
“If grizzly bears acted consistent with their reputation — when they see people, they attack — there wouldn’t be any grizzly bears left,” Scott says. “They would have all been killed. They’re not stupid. It’s ingrained in them that people are dangerous. These animals really don’t want much to do with people. They just want to be left alone.”
In places where that is standard operating procedure, bear/human problems remain exceedingly rare.
THAT, OF COURSE, will do little to calm your nerves should you be dropped into grizzly country and find yourself, probably for the first time, somewhere other than the top of the food chain.
My own initiation occurred in the ’90s, in Alaska, when I made my way by bush plane, then small boat, to the Cook Inlet shoreline of remote Lake Clark National Park, in the shadow of stunningly rugged Mount Iliamna, a semiactive volcano.
The idea was to spend a few days in a tent camp, fishing the incoming tides of a small coastal stream, flowing from Iliamna’s flanks, for coho. Pretty keen idea — one shared by the feared species in question, which in Alaska goes by the name brown bear.
Burned in my brain to this day is the memory of stepping off that boat, onto a broad, sandy beach — covered by grizzly tracks, many as big as dinner plates, with 6-inch claw marks adorning the rims like rays from a sun.
“Welcome home!” the outfitter said, before he unloaded my stuff and shoved off, vowing to return in a few days.
I swallowed hard and headed up the beach, where I met my fellow camper, Leland, an older gent from Idaho who had flown up there in his own plane. Among Leland’s many fine attributes were a bottle of hooch and a large rifle, which occupied a space between our cots in the tent at night.
That evening, we rigged up our rods and made the short walk to the river mouth to meet the incoming tide, which was like none I had ever seen. Each long, slow wave cruising up the river was half water, half fish. Every cast into these waters produced a strike, from a coho or a feisty Dolly Varden.
To us, it was catch-and-release nirvana. To the four or five brown bears that soon emerged on the opposite side of the river, it was supper. Everyone present made eye contact and managed to avoid flipping out. We backed off and watched them fish. Gradually, they began ignoring us and concentrated on feeding, moving slightly upstream, staying on their side of the river. At some point we shrugged, crept back to the river mouth and started fishing again. Peace prevailed.
I don’t really recommend this, and to this day, I’m not sure what possessed us to take the risk. Most of the bears were juveniles, and seemed utterly disinterested. But one, a massive sow we saw skirt through the area, was the largest bear I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure I would stay there if presented with the same situation today. But at the time, it just seemed OK.
It is a cliché, but you sort of had to be there. I will never forget, fishing a river opposite those bears, the indescribable mixture of fear and reverence I felt in that place and time. With senses heightened off the charts, it was as if I had stopped observing the natural world, and for the first time, stepped all the way into it.
Corny, yes. But real. No wilderness experience since has produced a feeling of being so profoundly alive.
AND THAT is exactly why I believe we owe it to the grizzlies — and ourselves — to bring them back into our corner of the surviving natural world.
We are presented here with a rare window to both right a wrong and make a stand about our own regional character. We should usher the grizzly — the largest missing piece of our natural heritage — back through it. Let’s be honest: Restoring the griz to the North Cascades won’t produce the sort of “trophic cascades” effect that came with bringing the wolf back to Yellowstone. The effect on the landscape will be small.
Grizzlies inhabit less than half their historical range, and number fewer than 2,000 on the continent, but are not on the verge of extinction.
So why bother? Because it is what respectful inhabitants of this grand place should do. The grizzly was the king of the Cascade crest when we arrived here with our long rifles. He should be restored to that throne.
Yes, the potential “recovery area” for the bears is large, its borders skirting towns on both sides of the Cascades. And yes, grizzlies in our backcountry would require new habits from all of us.
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Sacrifices, but small ones given the greater good.
In weak moments of optimism, I see the grizzly’s comeback as the capstone to a string of victories we’ve already achieved in the battle to bolster the framework of the Northwest’s natural heritage.
Conservation-minded Northwesterners have protected our last, best places as wilderness areas or national parks. We have saved (barely) the last stands of healing old-growth forest. We have reconnected wilderness pathways that allow forest creatures from the moose to the fisher to survive human incursion.
We’re working to save the wild Pacific salmon — no sure thing — and with it, the iconic orcas of the Salish Sea. Against major odds, we took a hard look at our region’s most egregious natural transgression — the Elwha River dams — and knocked them down.
We did all that. We can do this.
The official pieces are in place. But unlocking funds to make it happen will require political backbone. That pressure must come from the traditional Northwest tree-hugger establishment — people who have made all of the above happen, too many of whom are sitting on their hands in the bear debate for one simple reason:
Admit it, REI shoppers: Grizzly bears are unpredictable, beyond our control and scary. That emotion is natural, and valid. But it’s not the reason to block the grizzly’s path home to the North Cascades. It’s the best reason to promote it.
We’ve been having it both ways in the North Cascades for decades, enjoying a playground with all the splendors of the continent’s most-rugged lands — but none of its most-feared predators.
Fear, in fact, is an essential element of true wilderness.
Joe Scott sums up the North Cascades experience concisely: Without the grizzly, the land is still wild, yes. But not humbling.
Wildlife people often say that a bear that loses its innate fear of humans is a dangerous, ill-fated animal. The same might be said of humans who lose, or refuse to confront, their innate fear of bears. Such is the natural order.
There’s plenty of room in the wide-open North Cascades — and certainly in our hearts — for a little old-fashioned humility. Let the grizzly bear bring it home.