Grizzly bears have roamed North America for tens of thousands of years, ever since their ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia. They once ranged as far as Michigan and Mexico, and up to 100,000 existed when Europeans first arrived.

That soon changed, however, as intensive shooting, trapping and habitat loss eliminated the bears from most of their habitats in the contiguous United States. By the 20th century, just a few U.S. grizzly populations were left outside Alaska, prompting the U.S. to protect them under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.

Today, fewer than 1,000 grizzlies inhabit the Lower 48 states, mostly in Montana and Wyoming — including populations at Glacier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. But in Washington state, a handful are also clinging to another ancient enclave: the North Cascades, an idyllic montane wilderness straddling the U.S.-Canada border. And in hopes of helping them hang on, the U.S. is considering (and seeking input on) plans to slowly release more grizzlies back into this ancestral habitat.

America's 'most at-risk' grizzly bears

North Cascades The North Cascades Ecosystem could eventually support 280 grizzlies, scientists say. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

In the U.S., the North Cascades feature more than 2.6 million acres of federally designated wilderness, including North Cascades National Park and surrounding wilderness areas. This region, known as the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE), has the space and resources to support about 280 grizzlies, according to a 2016 report for the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission.

Records suggest the NCE hosted thousands of grizzlies in the early 1800s, before decades of trapping and hunting decimated them. Fewer than 10 are now thought to live there, a population scientists say is too small and isolated to mount a comeback without human help. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service (NPS) wrote in 2015, these grizzlies are on the brink of disappearing.

"Research indicates that this wilderness landscape is capable of supporting a self-sustaining grizzly bear population," the agencies wrote in a Federal Register post about potential recovery plans. "However, there has only been one observation of a solitary bear during the past 10 years. Given the low number of grizzly bears, very slow reproductive rate and other recovery constraints, grizzly bears in the NCE are the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the United States today."

The good side of grizzlies

grizzly bears A grizzly bear sow with her cubs at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. (Photo: Chase Dekker/Shutterstock)

According to a 2016 poll, 90 percent of registered voters in Washington state support efforts to recover grizzly populations in the North Cascades. At the same time, however, the idea has raised some understandable concerns about safety.

"With the additional bears and an ever increasing population, many of whom recreate in the North Cascades, you are asking for trouble," one commenter wrote. Grizzly bears can be dangerous when surprised or threatened, and this does sometimes lead to conflict with humans. Yet they pose much less danger overall than commonly believed, and trouble can usually be avoided by taking precautions like making noise while hiking, carrying bear spray and knowing what to do if you see a grizzly.

And while there's always some risk from co-existing with grizzlies, it's worth putting that risk in perspective. About 150 grizzlies live within Yellowstone National Park, for example, and it's slightly smaller than U.S. wilderness in the NCE. As FWS grizzly expert Wayne Kasworm tells OnEarth magazine, grizzly bears have killed eight people in the park's 145-year history. For comparison, the park has seen nine murders during that time — so humans have killed more humans in Yellowstone than grizzlies have. Other risks that surpass grizzlies at the park include drowning (119 deaths), falling (36), thermal pool burns (20), horse accidents (19) and freezing (10).

grizzly bear at Yellowstone A grizzly bear skulks through a forest clearing in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: S-t-v/Flickr)

About 4 million people visit Yellowstone per year, and based on the park's history, the NPS estimates your odds of being injured by a grizzly there are about 1 in 2.7 million. The odds would be even lower in the North Cascades, Kasworm says, due to lower population densities of both bears and people.

Grizzlies typically don't see humans as prey, and their diets are primarily vegetarian. As U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Bill Gaines recently told EarthFix, grizzly bears in the North Cascades have a lot of berries to keep them busy. "Fifteen to 20 percent [of their diet] is animal material: fish, deer carcasses, elk," Gaines says. "Eighty to 85 percent of their diet is from vegetation: shrub fruit like huckleberries, salmonberries. There's quite a long list of berry-producing plants."

And like wolves, grizzlies provide valuable services to the ecosystems where they live, such as helping control populations of prey species, tilling soil and dispersing seeds. Research has also shown that big, iconic wildlife like grizzly bears and gray wolves can boost local economies by drawing more tourists to national parks. The communities around Yellowstone, for example, have reportedly seen a $10 million increase in tourist spending since wolves were returned to the area in the 1990s.

Options for saving North Cascades grizzlies

North Cascades National Park Grizzly bears are one of 1,600 known species native to North Cascades National Park. (Photo: Mavenvision/Shutterstock)

Since grizzlies are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. has a duty to develop recovery plans for at-risk populations. And so the FWS and NPS are considering four plans for recovering the North Cascades grizzlies. As part of that process, they're also seeking public input on which plan to pick.

All four options would seek an eventual population of 200 grizzlies in the NCE, so that goal is a given. The question is how best to get there; one plan involves doing nothing new, while the other four involve various tactics for releasing grizzlies into the NCE:

  • Option A, known as the "no-action alternative," would involve no new actions beyond what's already being done, focusing on things like improved sanitation, poaching control, public education and research.
  • Option B would use an "ecosystem evaluation approach," with up to 10 grizzlies captured from Montana and/or British Columbia, then released at a single remote site on federal NCE lands over two summers. They'd be studied for two years, and if it went well, another 10 bears could again be released the same way.
  • Option C would release five to seven grizzlies per year over several years, aiming at an initial population of 25 bears. This would happen at multiple remote sites on federal land, but sites could be nixed (and bears could be moved) if there's any conflict with humans. The initial 25 bears could grow to 200 within 60 to 100 years, but more might be released over time to address mortality or sex ratios.
  • Option D would employ "expedited restoration," in which there's no set limit for bears released into the NCE per year, and the initial population goal wouldn't be capped at 25. The logistics of capturing and releasing suitable grizzlies would naturally limit the number of bears released, the agencies point out, adding that the yearly total would likely still only be five to seven. But the overall process could be less gradual, possibly reaching the goal of 200 grizzlies in 25 years.

Public comments on these plans are being accepted through March 14, and the NPS is also hosting a series of open houses around the state to encourage public discussion. It's crucial for those voices to be heard, ecologist and filmmaker Chris Morgan tells OnEarth, but it's also crucial for people to be informed by the science and reality of grizzly bears, not just their undeserved reputation as monsters.

"Those are important voices," Morgan says. "They have concerns, and fair enough. But I think it's down to people like me and others who work in education and film to provide facts, and perhaps open some minds and put to rest some of the myths."

And to that end, Morgan has made some compelling short films about people and grizzlies in the North Cascades. Here's one he released in 2016 — and it's worth setting aside 8 minutes to watch when you have a chance:

For an even closer look at the issue — including the history of releasing grizzlies into Montana's Cabinet Mountains, especially a particular bear named "Irene" — be sure to also check out Morgan's newer film, "Time for the Grizzly?"