Wildlife Conservation Program
The North Cascades is one of the most magnificent wild ecosystems in the world. But all is not well in this wilderness paradise. Grizzly bears and wolves are present only in small numbers, nowhere near their natural population levels. Both species are essential for proper functioning of the North Cascades ecosystem. As demonstrated in Yellowstone Park, large predators control herbivore populations and smaller predator populations, ultimately impacting vegetation growth and other major ecosystem characteristics.
Grizzly bears are often portrayed by the media as vicious and highly unpredictable. In fact, they are very reclusive creatures that act aggressive toward humans only in specific situations, usually when they feel threatened by human actions. Grizzly bears in the North Cascades are omnivores, with about 10% of their diet as meat or fish, and much of that winter killed carrion. Research has indicated that suitable habitat and adequate food sources are present in the North Cascades for maintaining at least 400 grizzly bears.
Wolves are extremely intelligent animals with a complex and fascinating social structure. There have been only two documented incidents in North America of wild wolves involved in human fatalities. Wolf livestock kills are not nearly as common as thought. Wolves generally prey on ungulates, with elk being the preferred prey and deer a close second. Wolves usually prey on old or injured animals, thus helping to maintain the vigor of prey species.
Grizzly Bear Conservation
History of Grizzly Bears in the North Cascades
Before Europeans arrived, grizzly bears were thriving throughout most of western North America. Hudson Bay Company trapping records show almost 4,000 grizzly bear hides shipped from trading posts in or near the North Cascades from 1827 and 1859. Today, it is estimated that only 20 to 40 grizzly bears remain in the North Cascades of Washington and British Columbia. This steep population decline is attributed to commercial trapping, habitat loss, and unregulated hunting. An isolated population, a restricted gene pool, and a very slow reproductive rate will make it almost impossible for North Cascade grizzly bears to recover naturally.
Preliminary steps have been taken toward grizzly bear recovery in the US North Cascades. The grizzly bear was listed as Threatened under the US Endangered Species Act in 1975. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) designated the North Cascades as one of six recovery areas in the lower 48 states. Protection for grizzly bears has been built into federal land management plans (e.g., National Forest Plans). Important steps have also been taken to reduce non-natural food attractants for bears (i.e., garbage, birdfeed, pet food, and other foods that attract bears to residential areas). Opinion surveys have demonstrated that a strong majority of residents in and around the North Cascades support grizzly bear recovery. Everything is ready to go in the Washington North Cascades, but the process has stalled at the federal level.
During the past decade, British Columbia has moved ahead of the US on grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades by planning and partially implementing an augmentation program using bears from Wells Gray Provincial Park. The augmentation effort has been put on hold by the BC Ministry for the Environment. The delay has been attributed to concerns about the effectiveness of grizzly bear augmentation programs.
Grizzly Bear Advocacy Today
Further progress on grizzly bear conservation in the Washington North Cascades requires an Environmental Impact Study (EIS). Federal funding is needed for the USFWS to implement the EIS. The USFWS recognizes the need for an EIS, but states that EIS funding is precluded by necessary spending on other endangered species. The Washington Congressional delegation, the USFWS, and other partners need to work together to generate funding for this critical study that will resolve how grizzly bear conservation should proceed in the Washington North Cascades.
Only limited steps are being taken by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to recover the North Cascades grizzly bear population. The Washington State Legislature has allocated $454,000 toward implementation of a federal EIS, but these funds can not be expended until the USFWS takes action. WDFW needs to increase their grizzly bear conservation efforts and Washington State legislators need to continue their call for grizzly bear conservation (renew future funding for the EIS.) until the USFWS finally hears that Washington residents really want grizzly bears in the North Cascades.
The British Columbia Ministry for the Environment needs to restart the augmentation program that will bring additional grizzly bears into the BC North Cascades. Research publications have clearly documented that grizzly bear augmentation programs are successful if young females are placed into areas with adequate habitat and food.
Gray Wolf Conservation
History of Gray Wolves in the North Cascades
Before Europeans arrived, wolves roamed nearly all of North America from Alaska to Mexico and the Pacific to the Atlantic. Trapping for furs decimated wolf populations in the North Cascades and much of the rest of the North America. Extermination programs (i.e., trapping, poisoning, and shooting) further suppressed wolf populations in the North Cascades. By 1930, wolves were thought to be extirpated from the Washington North Cascades and were rarely seen in the British Columbia North Cascades.
Wolves are listed as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. They are also listed as endangered by the State of Washington. These listings preclude the hunting, trapping, shooting, harassing, or capturing of gray wolves in the Washington North Cascades. Wolves are classified as big game animals in British Columbia, although hunting is very limited in the North Cascades.
Primary threats to the long-term survival of wolves in the North Cascades include habitat loss (i.e., residential development of lowlands needed by wolf prey species), over hunting of wolf prey species (i.e., elk and deer), and human induced wolf mortality (i.e., poaching, predator control, and hunting in British Columbia).
The wolf population in the North Cascades is very low. However, there have been occasional sightings since the early 1990s. Three packs with pups have been observed in the Washington North Cascades, indicating that reproduction has taken place. Wolf pups were photographed in 1991 near Hozemeen along Ross Lake. Adult wolf sightings have also been reported from the Pasayten Wilderness and the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Recent reports document wolf presence in the Methow and Twisp River valleys.
The biology and behavior of gray wolves is conducive to population recovery in the North Cascades. Wolves reproduce at a young age and often have large litters. Areas with adequate prey abundance can be colonized rapidly.
A wolf recovery program in Rocky Mountains has resulted in a few wolves moving into eastern Washington. It is likely just a matter of time until packs from northeast Washington colonize the North Cascades and create the potential for wolf population expansion throughout the state.
WDFW is responding to wolf colonization through development of a Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. The plan will identify locations and population goals for gray wolf recovery in Washington. It will also establish criteria for responding to wolf predation on livestock (i.e., agency predator control).
Wolf Advocacy Today
Now is the time for conservation advocates to speak up for wolf recovery in the North Cascades. WDFW and the Washington State legislators need to know that North Cascadesí residents support wolf recovery. Wolf population goals in Wolf Conservation and Management Plan should reflect the publicís strong support for wolf population recovery throughout the state.
Conservation advocates must also remain vigilant in protecting lowland habitats for wolf prey species. Urban growth boundaries must be maintained and efforts should be made to restore the natural function of lowland areas that have been dominated by agriculture in the recent past.
Elk and deer are big game animals in Washington State. Hunting quotas for these species need to reflect a balanced approach that leaves adequate prey for wolves. Wolf recovery advocates must be present to speak up for the needs of wolves when these hunting quotas are being set.
Limiting human induced mortality of wolves should be a top priority for conservation groups. Predator control by wildlife agencies is driven by complaints from a vocal minority opposed to wolves. Conservation advocates must counter this pressure with frequent calls for wolf protection. Enforcement of legal protections for wolves is essential. Conservation advocates should encourage the USFWS and WDFW to follow-up aggressively on every illegal wolf kill.
N3C has created the North Cascades Wildlife Action Network to enable concerned citizens to speak out about grizzly bear and wolf conservation. Network members advocated for policy changes, including letters to elected officials promoting grizzly bear EIS funding and comments to WDFW on the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.
Major Current Issues / Activities
What You Can Do To Help
North Cascades Conservation Council
P.O. Box 95980
Seattle, WA 98145-2980