North Cascades grizzly bears key to sustaining wild ecosystems

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 2, 2014 

Almost a decade passed without a confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear until April of 2010 when a remote camera placed 15 miles north of the border between Washington and Canada captured this photo.

B.C. GOVERNMENT — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

It's Bear Awareness Week, and while most of you are aware that Washington has a large population of black bears, many of you may not know that we also have grizzly bears. In fact, Washington is just one of four states left in the lower 48 where grizzlies can still be found. Throughout North America grizzly bears used to be widespread and common but their numbers and range have been dramatically reduced. In the North Cascades no more than a handful of grizzly bears remain. Protecting this imperiled population will likely require intervention and support from communities surrounding the North Cascades ecosystem.

So why should it matter to you if Washington has grizzly bears or not? Grizzly bears epitomize wildness. Where there are bears you will find healthy, intact ecosystems. They are what are called indicator species meaning that they serve as a barometer of an ecosystem's health. They are also keystone species meaning they play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community: they till the forests searching for grubs and ants, fertilize with salmon carcasses and disperse seeds. And they are umbrella species, meaning that protection of sufficient habitat for them will benefit a countless number of other species within their large home range. So basically, these guys are really good for the health of Washington's ecosystems, and what's good for bears like clean water, fresh air and healthy forests, is also good for you!

So, next time you see a bear in the North Cascades how will you know if it's one of the few elusive grizzlies? Surprisingly, grizzly bears and black bears are easy to confuse, especially when you only get a fleeting glimpse from a distance. Color and size are not the best indicators. Despite their name, black bears can also be cinnamon or blonde colored and some grizzlies are small and darker colored. The first, most obvious, indicator is the shoulder hump, only grizzlies have that characteristic. Grizzlies also have a dished face, longer claws and much smaller ears than those of a black bear, but you should never get that close to the bear to make those distinctions. You always want to give bears plenty of space and a clear exit route. Travel in groups and make noise so you don't surprise the bear. In general bears want to avoid people and they will go out of their way to do so.

Unfortunately, grizzly bears have been given an undeserved reputation as voracious predators, whereas in reality they are reclusive and only act aggressively toward humans if they feel startled or threatened or if food is involved. Even in Yellowstone National Park, park officials state that you are actually more likely to be struck by lightning than be killed by a grizzly bear. And, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are approximately 35,000 fatalities by automobiles every year in the U.S.; making the risk you take getting to the trailhead, much more hazardous than the risk you take on the trail itself.

Next year will mark 40 years since the grizzly bear was listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List and in order to point this species in the right direction towards recovery an environmental impact statement is needed. Fortunately, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, the team charged with planning for and maintaining healthy populations of grizzly bears in the lower 48, has identified ten-thousand square miles in the North Cascades as a grizzly bear recovery zone. The committee will be meeting in the North Cascades at the end of this month to consider what the next steps are for our North Cascades grizzlies. Let's show them that the communities surrounding the North Cascades are in support of grizzly bears; because what's good for bears, like clean water, fresh air and healthy forests is also good for people!

BEAR AWARE

Helping to celebrate Bear Awareness Week June 1-7, these local businesses are offering "bear aware" specialties: Avellino, Honey Bear Latte; Boundary Bay Brewery, Grizzly Brown Ale; The Everybody Store, Mighty Bear Hero Sandwich and Rudy's Pizzeria, Mama and Papa Bear Pizzas. For more information, go online to westernwildlife.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rose Oliver is the North Cascades field coordinator for Western Wildlife Outreach. For more information on what to do in your community or in the wild to lessen your chance of a negative encounter with wildlife, go online to westernwildlife.org.

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