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Grizzlies: no longer as elusive as sasquatch

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By Scott North
The Everett Herald

The powerful predators are so rare in Washington - best estimates are fewer than 20 bears - that for years belief in the Cascade grizzly's existence has required a childlike acceptance similar to that reserved by youngsters for Santa Claus.

It's that time of year when some people obsess about a mythical creature whose defining features include being big, being hairy and having a penchant for breaking into homes to devour sweet treats, such as heaping plates of cookies.

As 2011 comes to a close, belief in said creature comes down to a question of faith.

Not so for the elusive grizzly bear of the North Cascades range.

The powerful predators are so rare in Washington -- best estimates are fewer than 20 bears -- that for years belief in the Cascade grizzly's existence has required a childlike acceptance similar to that reserved by youngsters for Santa Claus.

Then came June, and with it word of photographic proof that Ursus arctos horribilis still wanders the rocky spine that divides the state. It had been more than 15 years since the last confirmed sighting.

The rugged mountains of eastern Snohomish County, particularly the high meadows around the Glacier Peak volcano, are considered prime grizzly habitat. These wildest parts of our community lie within the 9,565-square-mile North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area, which stretches from I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass north to the U.S.-Canada border.

Crosscut.com recently published an article by Nathan Rice that details the significance of the recent confirmed sighting, and the regulatory and political tangle that confronts any effort to increase the grizzly bear population in the North Cascades.

Rice's article, originally published in a different form in High Country News, succinctly covers terrain explored by David Knibb in his book, "Grizzly Wars: The Public Fight Over the Great Bear." Knibb's book, which is available at Sno-Isle Regional Library, makes the case that the very landscape of the North Cascades was shaped in part by the big bears who now are so few in number that they may no longer possess the genetic diversity to rebound unassisted.

The last time grizzlies got much attention around here was in the mid-1990s. That's when a strange brew of far-right politics and legitimate concern over property rights morphed into some truly crazy conspiracy theories. Several tracts, and at least one book, were in circulation that suggested efforts to restore grizzly populations in the North Cascades actually were part of an international plot to erode U.S. sovereignty. To hear the self-appointed sages tell it, the bears were drooling beasts that lived to turn people into chew toys, and government agents were only too happy to use bear recovery plans as a pretext to drive people from their homes in the foothills. Toll roads were somehow part of the plot, too, proving that transportation planning also can take on the sinister when one adopts the cammie-jammie, black helicopter, bury-bullets-in-the-back-forty world view.

I bring that up now because the recent bear sighting no doubt will rekindle interest in the fate of the grizzly bear in the North Cascades. It's time to read up on the subject. As with Santa Claus, facts provide the means to sort out what is myth and what is reality.

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