News that the National Park Service wants to consider whether grizzly bears should be restored to the North Cascades ecosystem in Washington state is a big step towards bolstering the region's ecological integrity, but recent events surrounding the Endangered Species Act raise questions about whether the Park Service can succeed if it decides grizzly recovery is in the ecosystem's best interests.
In the past month alone the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which determines whether species need ESA protection to survive, has decided that wolverines do not need the measure's help. That finding drew immediate condemnation from some members of the conservation community, who pointed to the warming climate, trapping, and low reproductive cycles as barriers to the species' survival.
“The Service made the wrong call today in denying protections for wolverines under the ESA. The Service is ignoring the numerous serious threats to wolverines, including the species’ low genetic diversity and impacts such as trapping and winter recreation," Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in response to the decision. "These serious threats are made worse by loss of snowpack across much of the West – habitat needed for this snow-dependent species.
“The wolverine is in dire need of protection under the ESA, regardless of one’s opinions about the science of climate change. The number of wolverines in the Lower 48 is incredibly low with only a few dozen females able to produce offspring in any year. Are we really willing to deny any sort of federal protection for a species whose low numbers make it one of the rarest in the continental U.S.?”
At the same time it decided not to list the wolverine under the ESA, Fish and Wildlife also withdrew a proposed rule that would have allowed for a "nonessential-experimental-population designation" that could have been used in efforts to recolonize the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming with wolverines. Such a designation was initially used in 1995 when gray wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park to jump-start a wolf recovery program there.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's decision not to extend ESA protection to wolverines came, perhaps coincidentally, less than two weeks after the agency tinkered with how it interprets the act in a way, observers maintain, that "severely limits its reach and retreats from the conservation ethic that healthy landscapes depend on native plants and animals."
In an op-ed piece for The New York Times last week, John Vucetich (a Michigan Tech ecologist who long has studied the wolves of Isle Royale National Park) and Michael Paul Nelson wrote that under the agency's new view, "(T)he law’s protections, for practical purposes, will be applied only if a species is at risk of extinction in a vital (read, significant) portion of its range where its loss would put the entire species at risk of extinction. And the concept of range no longer takes into account its historical distribution but defines the concept in terms of where the species is found now.
"This means that as long as a small, geographically isolated population remains viable, it won’t matter if the animal or plant in question has disappeared across the vast swath of its former habitat. It won’t qualify for protection."
Which brings us back to the Park Service's announcement that it wants to at least consider helping grizzly bears return in healthy populations to the North Cascades. Last Thursday the agency announced that it would embark on a three-year process to develop an environmental impact statement examining the matter.
“This is the first stage of a multi-step process to help inform decisions about grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades ecosystem,” said Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “The National Park Service and our partners in this effort haven’t made any decisions about the bear’s restoration at this time as federal law requires us to look at a range of options, including not restoring grizzlies to the area.”
This fall the Park Servie hopes to sign a contract with an outside firm to prepare an EIS that will "evaluate a range of alternatives for potential restoration of grizzly bears in the expansive ecosystem in the north-central area of the state."
The statement, the Park Service went on, "will be developed in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service..."
“The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan calls on us to fully consider the restoration of the grizzly bear in the North Cascades, and the process ensures we solicit the public for their input before putting any plan into action,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe. “We will work together with the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, state of Washington, and the public as we move through the EIS process.”
The U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will be cooperating agencies. Funding for the EIS will be provided by the National Park Service. FWS and other cooperating agencies and partners will provide technical support throughout.
Nearly four decades ago, in 1975, Fish and Wildlife listed the grizzly bear as a threatened species in the Lower 48 states, a designation it still carries. Washington state officials ruled the species was endangered in 1980. Four years ago, a grizzly was photographed in North Cascades National Park by a visitor out for a hike. Joe Sebille used a small point-and-shoot camera to photograph a bear on a ridgeline in October 2010. Months later a team of grizzly bear experts agreed that photo portrayed a grizzly, the first to be captured on film on the U.S. side of the North Cascades in perhaps 50 years.
With that photographic evidence, and with a seemingly healthy grizzly population in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, in northern Montana, and in Alaska and Canada, might the Fish and Wildlife Service under its new approach to the ESA demur on the need to actively help recover a resident grizzly population in the North Cascades?
"Today's announcement presents a unique opportunity for us to fully participate in a rigorous public process that will consider a wide range of alternatives for grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades," Phil Anderson, Director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said after the Park Service announced the upcoming study. "We welcome the opportunity to participate as a cooperating agency with the National Park Service and the other federal agencies interested in the conservation and recovery of grizzly bears in Washington."
Conservation groups in the Pacific Northwest believe grizzlies were worth seeing in the North Cascades.
“Keeping grizzly bears in and around North Cascades National Park protects this great natural legacy for generations to come,” said Rob Smith, Northwest Regional Director for National Parks Conservation Association. “Millions of people live within minutes of this spectacular piece of wild America, and that’s worth protecting.”
Added Chris Morgan, a filmmaker and bear expert, “Where these iconic animals can live and roam, there is clear air, clean water and wild country. What’s good for bears is good for people, too. Grizzly bear recovery and wilderness protection and recreation are compatible as people and bears both need large, unspoiled wilderness areas.”
A contract for the grizzly bear EIS is expected to be awarded this fall. A timeline for public involvement – including public meetings through what is called the “scoping” process – will be set after the contract is in place.