Washington State Wants to Bring Back Grizzlies and I Was Needlessly Terrified
The hiking community is usually the biggest supporter of conservation efforts. But sometimes the animal you’re conserving is scary.
Before I learned his name, I knew Joe Scott only as the Bear Guy.
“Oh, and he is an archetypal Bear Guy,” Andrea Wolf-Buck, the communications director of Conservation Northwest, a Washington state conservation nonprofit, wrote me in a follow-up email after the initial oblique introduction. “Joe does not disappoint!”
I was speaking with Wolf-Buck in the first place because, unlike Conservation Northwest, I am not someone who has a Bear Guy on speed dial. To be honest, all I knew about bears at that point boiled down to three things: 1) that I really do not want to get eaten by one, 2) something something something play dead?, and 3) that they brought out extremely strong opinions in the ever-lively Washington Hikers and Climbers Facebook group, a 263,000-member-strong private community prone to long debates over the ethics of geotagging photos, the progeny of large animal tracks, and, evidently, the proposed restoration of grizzly bears in North Cascades National Park on the Canadian border.
A typical comment thread on a post about the latter in recent years has looked something like this:
Stupid idea. Let them roam where they roam. If they end up migrating down here, then so be it.
We do not want grizzly bears in the North Cascades. Keep them where they are. This is a terrible idea.
I think Mother Earth approves. I’m excited about this!
I am a hiker and climber and would prefer not to be killed by a bear.
This is amazing conservation news and a project long in the making to bring them back to their habitat!
I love the N Cascades the way they are.
I, like many members of the overwhelmingly liberal, animal-loving, granola-munching hiking community in Washington state, am predisposed to anything and everything that has a conservation angle. The fisher restoration? Bring ‘em back! Gray wolves? A majestic animal and a beautiful success story! But guiltily, I’d felt a niggling sense of, well, understanding when fellow outdoor enthusiasts expressed nervousness about the grizzly proposal.
“[T]he thought of grizzlies in the North Cascades sends shivers down many a Northwest hiker’s spine,” Craig Romano, a local guidebook author in favor of the restoration project, has written. “And I know that many of my fellow hikers have no desire to hike in grizzly country — even less so to encourage these bears to return to some of their favorite hiking grounds.”
A view of the North Cascades. “The wildest places are those that have grizzly bears,” said conservationist Joe Scott, “and we derive a great deal of value from that as people.” Photo by craig kerwien on Unsplash
Though grizzlies (also called brown bears) once numbered in the thousands in the Pacific Northwest, their population was decimated by the Hudson Bay Company's fur operation in the mid 1800s. While hikers send pictures of cinnamon-colored (and deceptively named) black bears to the North Cascades park stewards in excitement every season, the last credible grizzly sighting in the area was in 1996. The grizzly bear — one of the most iconic symbols of the mountain west — is now believed to be functionally extirpated in the North Cascades.
Despite being a conservation horror story, this history has made modern Washington something of an arkoudaphobic hiker’s paradise. The state has all the rugged, breathtaking alpine beauty of places like Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, or British Columbia, but without the accompanying media reports of grizzly attacks. While Washington does have plenty of smaller black bears, they’re skittish and not considered to be much of a threat; precautions like bear spray and bear bells, all necessary in grizz’ country, are frequently dismissed by longtime locals as paranoid out-of-towner behavior. As Conservation Northwest’s Wolf-Buck sympathized with me on a call, “No Washingtonian who goes into the woods is really afraid of a black bear. We know what we’re supposed to do. Grizzly is a different story.”
The latest iteration of the on-again-off-again Washington state grizzly reintroduction process began in 2015 and found an unexpected bipartisan ally in President Donald Trump’s then-secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. Opposition by the local ranching communities, taken up by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), sent Zinke backpedaling, and his successor, David Bernhardt, shut down the plan for good. Then last November, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revived the effort to reintroduce the bears using the Endangered Species Act provision 10(j), intended to “relieve landowner concerns” by giving potential newcomer bears an experimental status of “threatened,” allowing for more management options and relaxing regulations. The public comment period ended in December; now everyone is waiting for the environmental impact statement, which is the next bureaucratic hurdle to clear.
In the meantime, you can count on a Bear Guy to tell it to you straight. “I think the number of human deaths at the claws of grizzly bears [in Yellowstone National Park] totals 11 since 1872,” Scott said. “So there’s your perspective.”
Scott’s real title is international program director of Conservation Northwest; in addition to working on the grizzly program in the North Cascades, he partners with teams in British Colombia on similar grizzly revitalization projects. The programs in B.C. are often led by First Nations groups, who are spiritually, culturally, and even geographically linked to the grizzly; on the southern side of the border, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe has voiced support for the restoration efforts but did not reply to a request for comment by press time.
Scott had actually overestimated the fatalities he quoted to me: Since Yellowstone was founded, just eight people have been killed by grizzlies inside the park boundary (a ninth unsubstantiated fatality may have occurred in 1907 after someone supposedly poked a bear cub with an umbrella). The home of Old Faithful gets 4.8 million visitors a year; North Cascades, by contrast, is one of the least-visited National Parks, with just 30,154 visitors in 2022. Yellowstone estimates the odds of being injured by a grizzly within its borders are around 1 in 2.7 million visits; in theory, if that ratio held in Washington, it could take almost 90 years before there was even an injury.
Grizzlies are “not like little Tasmanian devils spinning around the landscape, striking hapless humans at random, or some nonsense like that,” Tom Smith, a bear biologist specializing in human-bear conflict, and who is not involved in the North Cascades restoration effort, told me. “There is always some predisposing factor, and the vast majority of those [attacks] … if the persons had done something proactive or differently, they wouldn’t have happened.”
"You don't get to being an old bear by doing stupid things," Tom Scott, a bear biologist specializing in human-bear conflict, told Heatmap. "They don't just jump like a jack-in-the-box out of nowhere to go after people." Photo by John Thomas on Unsplash
The problem is, there is a lot of bad information out there about grizzlies, which is why people like me — outdoorsy, environmentally minded, sympathetic to conservation efforts — can get caught up in the what-ifs. Many such fallacies are repeated and amplified in those Facebook posts: that the translocation candidates would be other place’s “problem bears” (they wouldn’t be); that we don’t need more meat-eating carnivores roaming the mountains (Cascade grizzlies are heavy plant-eaters); and that we should wait for the bears to come back on their own (cut off from the North Cascades by roads and cities in B.C., they won’t). Even concerns about climate change’s impact on future bears can be assuaged; research shows habitats favorable to grizzlies are only likely to expand as the region warms, in part because bears eat many of the plants that are the first to spring up after wildfires.
Then there is the fact that we’re still years and years away from grizzlies being more than a few needles in a vast 9,800-square-mile haystack. The proposal on the table is to move just 25 bears into the mountains over a 10-year period, with the dream goal of the population reaching perhaps 200 after a century. “I will probably never see a grizzly in the wild in my lifetime in Washington state,” Wolf-Buck told me.
Despite the anxiety on social media, most people are also supportive of the proposal. A May 2016 poll commissioned by Defenders of Wildlife, another conservation nonprofit supporting the bear project, and conducted by Tulchin Research, found 79% of hikers, campers, hunters, and fishers in the state supported the effort. Among all voters, approval was one percentage point better.
Support dips to a still-strong 66% in the eastern, agricultural, and red parts of the state, including Okanogan County, which lies directly to the proposed reintroduction area’s east. “In the community that I am a part of, and in the circles that I typically spend my time in, people are staunchly opposed to having another predator to deal with,” Pam Lewison, a rancher and the director of the Center for Agriculture at the conservative Washington Policy Center think tank, told me, adding that “ultimately, the thought that these are majestic creatures who are more afraid of you than you are them is just not true.”
But grizzlies are “odds assessors,” according to Smith, the bear biologist, and there are simple ways for hikers to tilt the math in their favor. In addition to precautions recreationists should already be taking in black bear country — storing food in bear canisters and never in a tent — the “one thing I don’t see blazoned across every pamphlet that should be there is, you have no business going into bear country without a deterrent,” Smith told me. “I mean, you have no business.” For most people, that just means getting in the habit of carrying bear spray. And hike with friends: “The simplest thing that a person can do, that shows consistent positive results, is hike with two or more people,” Smith added. “I don’t have a single incident in North America where two people calmly stood their ground and the bear touched them.” (Oh, and all that stuff about playing dead? Don’t do that.)
Will there be a learning curve? Of course. But “just like the bears, we’re a highly adaptable species,” Scott told me, pointing out that “people will get used to it: They get used to carrying bear spray, they get used to storing their food in bins, they get used to making noise on a trail, and they get used to leashing their dogs. None of this is all that big of a deal.”
Then the Bear Guy said something that surprised me: that maybe we should be a little bit nervous outdoors. Maybe Washingtonians’ laxity is what is unnatural, the wildlife population long ago brought to a bloody heel by us. But is that actually what we want our state’s remaining wild lands to be — human playgrounds? “Some people want it, but I think most people don’t,” Scott said. “All the marketing for the outdoor crap and all this stuff — it’s all about adventure. Well, you want adventure? Here you go. Guaranteeing your safety is not adventure.”
There is still much work ahead: more studies; more research; more proposals; more letters to Congress; more outreach to the state’s ranchers, who are concerned about their livelihoods and the stresses on animals they care about; and, especially, more education of those who want to enjoy the beauty of Washington state but are a little bit uneasy about sharing that space with newcomers.
Which, to an extent, maybe we ought to be. As a wise Bear Guy once told me, “we might not necessarily be the boss out there, and that’s a good thing.”