Thursday, November 29, 2007

Op Ed - Grizzly Recovery In The North Cascades

In the August 2007 issue of Washington Trails, Jonathan Guzzo penned a thoughtful article on preservation and recovery of the grizzly bear and its habitat in the North Cascades. Mr. Guzzo presented questions on the topic and suggested that we get the “conversation started so we can make the best decision for future hikers and this magnificent species.” These are some of my thoughts on the subject.

As to the question of whether or not hikers will be safe in the back country in the presence of a grizzly bear population, I have no doubt that we will continue to be safe. Of course, both the question and answer are a bit loaded in the sense that we are never completely safe when we hike; a myriad of difficulties—from merely problematic to fatal—can arise on a trek, so it is not just the presence of a large animal that raises the issue of safety. In my view, our safety is largely dependant upon our knowledge. The more knowledge is inherent in a thing the greater the understanding and the greater the understanding the greater the safety (with apologies to Paracelsus). Conversely, the less we understand something, the more we tend to fear it, and fear of the grizzly has led to an enormous misunderstanding of the great bear. That misunderstanding and fear began with Lewis & Clark, who did no favor for the grizzly, as their descriptions and accounts of the bear resulted in the scientific name Ursus arctos horribilis (the horrible bear) which was bestowed upon the grizzly by George Ord in 1815. Unfortunately, the Lewis & Clark scientific descriptions of the grizzly were overshadowed by their stories of a “grizzle” bear who, when wounded by gunfire, became angry and assaulted its attacker. From that day to this, the fear-mongering stories about grizzlies have continued unabated. But the horrible bear of George Ord is not the animal described in the insightful books of William H. Wright, Frank Craighead and Doug Peacock. Nor is it the animal I know.

There are a multitude of things we should know and preparations we should make before venturing into the backcountry. For example, the ten essentials are—well—essential. So is the need to know the terrain, weather conditions and wildlife we might encounter. And the grizzly is certainly not the only animal we should be aware of. One recent October I was confronted by a bull elk who, inexplicably, thought I had more than just an observer’s interest in a member of his harem. It wasn’t true, of course, but I knew enough about a bull elk in rut to be prepared for his behavior. The point is this: knowing how to use the medical kit in your backpack is every bit as important as knowing how to conduct yourself in grizzly country. While the chance of even seeing a grizzly in the wild is remote, there is no substitute for informed human behavior if you do. Proper grizzly etiquette can be learned from a number of different sources, including the books alluded to above, but two excellent resources are Lance Olsen’s Field Guide To The Grizzly Bear (1992, Sasquatch Books), and the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project (

Another of Mr. Guzzo’s questions deals with possible loss of trail miles—that is, trail closures “due to bear activity or den emergence.” He suggests that this is likely, and I think he is right about that. I see no reason why the government would deal with grizzlies any different in the North Cascades than it does in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Mostly for liability reasons, I believe, the government tends to err on the side of caution by closing trails quickly upon learning of bear activity. I don’t always agree with it, but I think this is policy. More important, I can accept this as a sort of cost of doing business in and for the wilderness. I can even accept the idea of permanently closed areas, such as those in Denali National Park, in furtherance of grizzly survival and habitat. For me, the presence of the grizzly legitimizes our definition of wilderness, and to know that our wilderness areas are truly wild and being protected by sensible regulation is more important than my presence there.

It has been said that the grizzly bear is the very symbol of American wilderness and I wonder, if the grizzly is removed, do we still have wilderness? I suppose the answer for many people is yes but, even accepting that, it seems to me that our wilderness is diminished with each species removed. And where does removal end? Is the elk next? How about moose? Both elk and moose have killed humans. And rattle snakes—good gracious, let’s get rid of those snakes! Arguably, the removal of creatures that are deemed undesirable for one reason or another is a slippery slope. To me, the grizzly is much more than a symbol. Knowing, when I am in grizzly country, that I am no longer at the top of the food chain is a humbling and wonderful personal experience. But, knowing that the grizzly is out there, especially when I am not, is far more important.

By Mick Tronquet

Editors note: Mick has a great interest in educating the public about grizzly bears in the North Cascades. He will be supporting GBOP through volunteer efforts in the Seattle area where he practices law. Through more of an op-ed piece, the questions raised here are thought provoking and part of the dialog which we as a community must engage in order to address the issue of grizzly recovery. Currently less than 20 grizzly bears live in the North Cascades. A declining number that many biologists deem to low to sustain a viable population over time. What are we as a society to do about this situation? Its a personnal choice that should be based on educated fact, not emotional fiction. We welcome well thought out opinions on this subject. Please submit any entries you would like considered for publishing on the GBOP BLOG to Dennis Ryan.