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North American grizzly bear
Credit: Courtesy of Brenda Phillips

On the conservation roller coaster, good and bad news for grizzly bears

Fewer than 10 grizzlies are thought to live in the North Cascades wilderness, and they won’t be getting any help from the federal government.

Last week, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced that his agency would not move forward with a plan to re-introduce grizzly bears to North Central Washington, citing overwhelming public opposition to the plan.

Chris Morgan is here to share his thoughts on the decision. He's a bear ecologist, and host of KUOW's podcast The Wild. He's been working on the grizzly bear restoration project for more than two decades.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You know the North Cascades very well. What's the current state of grizzly bears right now in that area?

It's an amazing place on our doorstep, this 10,000 square miles of really wild country. And no matter how wild it is, there's only a few bears there, fewer than 10 grizzly bears left, maybe even two or three of them.

So, one of the rarest populations, most endangered populations of grizzly bears in North America, that have lived there for 20,000 years. They are a significant species to local Native American indigenous people. It's their native home here, but they're highly threatened.

In some ways, it's not a surprise that these bears are being left behind and abandoned by this current administration, that doesn't seem to do very much in terms of environmental protection, to put it mildly. Grizzly bears have fallen down the list of priorities for them. So, it's pretty devastating to hear.

On the other hand, grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades is very much this roller coaster ride. Those of us who have been involved for a lot of years on this — and there's a lot of amazing organizations that focus on these grizzlies — we're kind of used to that roller coaster ride.

The hope is that the Endangered Species Act, which protects this handful of grizzly bears, will be the one that wins out in the end. If that's the case, the government's obliged to help them.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt claims grizzly bears are not in danger of extinction and that the recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states is an amazing success story.

If grizzlies are managed with success in other parts of the country, as he says, why is it important to grow the population here in the North Cascades?

First and foremost, it's their native home. They've been here for 20,000 years. They're an integral part of this ecosystem. They're a part of the Wild West that is iconic and that has, in some ways, been here long before human existence and certainly European settlers.

They're a part of the ecosystem. They're a part of the fabric of this wild Western area of North America, even beyond places like the Rockies, like Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide in Montana.

This is a special place, the furthest west in the lower 48 where we have grizzlies, even though there's a tiny number of them. I think it's in our interests as human beings to protect these big wild ecosystems that these umbrella species like grizzly bears help us protect.

A federal appeals court ruled last week that bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will remain on the endangered species list.

You get bad news one day, last week about the North Cascades, and then great news the very next day. It's been on again and off again, protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears over the last decade or more. If they're protected, they're safe. If they're unprotected, they can be trophy hunted.

They've been protected since 1975, under the ESA, the Endangered Species Act. That protection was lifted in 2017. That would have allowed them to be trophy hunted. Then this was temporarily prevented until last week, when firm ESA protection was given back to these bears by the federal appeals court.

There are about 700 grizzly bears that that are now safe in that 34,000 square miles in parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. It's a huge thing for grizzly bears there, and in the lower 48.

We need to put it in perspective. We used to have around 50,000 grizzly bears in the lower 48 in historical times. Now, there are 2,000. Several hundred of them live over there, but you can see how we have decimated their numbers. Anything we can do to protect even a few hundred bears is huge, so the Yellowstone news was massive.

There's one Yellowstone bear in particular that's pretty special, Bear 399. What's her story?

She's so famous she has her own Facebook page. She is perhaps the oldest grizzly bear in the wild in the United States, perhaps in North America. She's 24 years old. She's had many litters of cubs over the years.

I understand she's got 22 or so descendants. She's become very famous in this Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and especially Grand Teton National Park. I've heard even Jane Goodall is a huge fan of Bear 399. So, she’s made it right?

She's old. She's a successful mum. Her future was looking questionable. Is she protected, is she not in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and that greater area there? She emerged this year, and this is the surprising part, as a 24-year-old grizzly, with four brand new cubs. It's just incredibly touching to me to think that she's emerged into the world. As of last week, she and her new cubs are protected. It just seems to be the way it should be in a place that's as iconic and wonderful as Yellowstone, doesn't it?

I found her on Twitter and I started following her today. She's @grizzlybear399, in case anyone's interested. Chris, what do you take away from these changing stories?

One thing is that nothing happens passively in the world of conservation and protecting our planet, and grizzly bears and everything that comes with it — whether it's species or places. I think we've all got to keep our eye on the ball when it comes to the protection of these wild places.

The current administration has not been not being kind to environmental laws and wild places and species. We've just got to be present, as a society, as a community, knowing that these intact ecosystems or wild places are important for all of us and not just the animals that some people love. We've just got to be mindful of that, I think, every day.

After last week's federal decision to not re-introduce grizzlies to the North Cascades, Washington Congressman Dan Newhouse cheered the decision, saying that homeowners, farmers, and small business owners did not want grizzly bears in North Central Washington.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.