Restoring the North Cascades Ecosystem

In 49 hours, the National Park Service will stop taking comments on an important issue: whether to reintroduce grizzly bears into the North Cascades near Seattle. If you leave a comment on their website before then, you can help make this happen! Follow the easy directions here:

Please go ahead! Then tell your friends to join in, and give them this link. This can be your good deed for the day.

But if you want more details:

Grizzly bears are traditionally the apex predator in the North Cascades. Without the apex predator, the whole ecosystem is thrown out of balance. I know this from my childhood in northern Virginia, where deer are stripping the forest of all low-hanging greenery with no wolves to control them. With the top predator, the whole ecosystem springs to life and starts humming like a well-tuned engine! For example, when wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park, it seems that even riverbeds were affected:

There are several plans to restore grizzlies to the North Cascades. On the link I recommended, Matthew Inman supports Alternative C — Incremental Restoration. I’m not an expert on this issue, so I went ahead and supported that. There are actually 4 alternatives on the table:

Alternative A — No Action. They’ll keep doing what they’re already doing. The few grizzlies already there would be protected from poaching, the local population would be advised on how to deal with grizzlies, and the bears would be monitored. All other alternatives will do these things and more.

Alternative B — Ecosystem Evaluation Restoration. Up to 10 grizzly bears will be captured from source populations in northwestern Montana and/or south-central British Columbia and released at a single remote site on Forest Service lands in the North Cascades. This will take 2 years, and then they’ll be monitored for 2 years before deciding what to do next.

Alternative C — Incremental Restoration. 5 to 7 grizzly bears will be captured and released into the North Casades each year over roughly 5 to 10 years, with a goal of establishing an initial population of 25 grizzly bears. Bears would be released at multiple remote sites. They can be relocated or removed if they cause trouble. Alternative C is expected to reach the restoration goal of approximately 200 grizzly bears within 60 to 100 years.

Alternative D — Expedited Restoration. 5 to 7 grizzly bears will be captured and released into the North Casades each year until the population reaches about 200, which is what the area can easily support.

So, pick your own alternative if you like!

By the way, the remaining grizzly bears in the western United States live within six recovery zones:

• the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) in Wyoming and southwest Montana,

• the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) in northwest Montana,

• the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem (CYE) in extreme northwestern Montana and the northern Idaho panhandle,

• the Selkirk Ecosystem (SE) in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington,

• the Bitterroot Ecosystem (BE) in central Idaho and western Montana,

• and the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE) in northwestern and north-central Washington.

The North Cascades Ecosystem consists of 24,800 square kilometers in Washington, with an additional 10,350 square kilometers in British Columbia. In the US, 90% of this ecosystem is managed by the US Forest Service, the US National Park Service, and the State of Washington, and approximately 41% falls within Forest Service wilderness or the North Cascades National Park Service Complex.

For more, read this:

• National Park Service, Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan / Environmental Impact Statement: North Cascades Ecosystem.

The picture of grizzlies is from this article:

• Ron Judd, Why returning grizzlies to the North Cascades is the right thing to do, Pacific NW Magazine, 23 November 2015.

If you’re worried about reintroducing grizzly bears, read it!

The map is from here:

• Krista Langlois, Grizzlies gain ground, High Country News, 27 August 2014.

Here you’ll see the huge obstacles this project has overcome so far.

17 Responses to Restoring the North Cascades Ecosystem

  1. Julie Sylvia says:

    I live in the Pacific NW and enjoy getting out into the wilderness. As an anxious, worst-case-scenario fearing type, I fear (for myself, those I know and love, and even people in general) potential encounters with grizzlies, mountain lions, wolves, great white sharks…yet I also understand the role of apex predators in maintaining the very ecosystems that I love best. After reading at length, including the frequently emotional comments by opponents, about this issue of reintroducing grizzlies to certain key habitats, I have weighed my conscience against my fear and am supporting the measure for “Incremental Restoration”. “And in short, I was afraid.”–T.S. Eliot

  2. David Pearce says:

    Do we really want a living world where sentient beings hurt, harm and kill each other – and where predators disembowel, asphyxiate and eat their victims alive? The CRISPR revolution in biotech, synthetic gene drives, and the explosive growth of IT mean the entire biosphere will shortly become programmable. What is the optimal burden of suffering in Nature? For the first time in history, intelligent moral agents will shortly be able to choose. No, I’m not suggesting that we embark on a Five Year Plan to veganise the living world and roll out the costly cross-species fertility regulation that compassionate stewardship would entail – not yet anyway. But we should think long and hard before actively promoting “re-wilding” – and human or nonhuman predators.

    • John Baez says:

      Even if we destroy all existing ecosystems and replace them with one that we’ve programmed, Darwin’s laws will apply: the beings that most successfully make more of themselves are the beings there will be the most of.

      Suppose we can program nature to do whatever we want (a risky supposition). If we create a world without predators, the prey will die of disease and starvation. Something like this is already happening in Virginia, where I grew up: the deer all have Lyme disease, and they have essentially killed the forest by eating all saplings: it just takes decades to notice that the forest is dead, since full-grown trees live a long time. If we also cure all diseases, the prey will destroy all edible plant life and then die of starvation. We can stop this by killing the prey ourselves when their numbers grow too great. Or, perhaps we can program them to stop reproducing when their numbers grow too great.

      And then… well, then there will be a great thermodynamic tendency for evolution to exploit this out-of-balance situation in yet another way. We can continue fighting this, as indeed we do within the sphere of civilized human life. And perhaps someday we will learn to stay on top of the situation! But right now we are not even able to stay on top of the situation in the sphere of civilized human life: we are supporting our existence only by burning so much carbon that we are destroying the conditions in which our current lifestyle is possible.

      In short: someday we might be wise enough to turn the world into a well-managed garden, and foresee and avoid the worse of the negative side-effects. Right now we lack the necessary wisdom. In fact we are so unwise that we’re doing quite the opposite: we are turning the world into a wasteland. Nature is better than we are at sustaining complex systems, so I want to preserve the wilderness and even take some very careful steps to restore it in places where we have broken it.

      If you watch the movie about reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone, you’ll get a better idea of what this entails.

      • David Pearce says:

        I share your dark views about what humans are doing to the planet. But does “rewilding” call for any less wisdom than compassionate stewardship which aims to minimise the burden of suffering in the living world?

        On your technical points, yes, phasing out or genetically tweaking predators is recipe for Malthusian catastrophe – if taken on its own. But if combined with e.g. cross-species immunocontraception to regulate population sizes, then the ecological sustainability of a non-violent biosphere needn’t be an issue. And the crazy thing about using CRISPR-based synthetic drives is that if intelligent moral agents want to “fix” genes for e.g. low pain-sensitivity across entire sexually reproducing species, then this compassionate intervention can work even if the allele(s) in question carry a fitness cost to the individual. Gene drives “cheat” the laws of Mendelian inheritance and natural selection as traditionally understood.

        Yellowstone? Wolves eat their larger victims alive. More generally, predators promote a “landscape of fear”. There are more civilised ways to run an ecosystem than starvation and predation – IMO.

      • John Baez says:

        I doubt we’ll come to agreement on the main issue here. Maybe one thing we can agree on is this: before trying to use gene drives to “cheat Mendelian inheritance and the laws of natural selection” in the wild, we should do experiments to see what actually happens when we try this: experiments that are contained yet last for multiple generations with large populations, so that some of the quirky things we don’t expect have a chance to happen.

        Moreover we should try this not just for one particular modification, but for all the modifications we intend to carry out—or at least enough kinds of modifications to understand the landscape of possible outcomes. Biological systems are pretty good at working around constraints, and often the results are unexpected and dramatic.

        • David Pearce says:

          I completely agree with you about the need for extreme caution. But later this century and beyond, every cubic meter of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance and micromanagement. Do we want a living world where sentient beings harm each other or not? Ultimately the level of suffering in the post-CRISPR biosphere is an ethical question. If intelligent moral agents opt for a living world without starvation and predators, we’re not going to run out of computational resources.

        • John Baez says:

          I don’t think it’s assured that “later in this century and beyond, every cubic meter of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance and micromanagement.” I think it’s also possible that civilization as we know it will collapse, and that all sorts of other things will happen. That’s one reason I want well-established wilderness areas: ecosystems of this sort are pretty good at taking care of themselves.

          But in fact, natural ecosystems are so complex, so full of profound information that we’re just beginning to understand, that these should especially be preserved if our civilization goes the high-tech route. We know far less about the design of ecosystems than nature does, and any premature attempt to replace nature with a design of our choosing is likely to fall on its face. Vegetarian wildcats and deer that don’t need to run are good examples of things that won’t work well for long.

  3. John Baez says:

    Hmm, the National Park Service seems to have extended the comment period! Now their site says comments are allowed to 28 April 2017! But still, comment now: everything important occurs in the present moment.

  4. […] via Restoring the North Cascades Ecosystem — Azimuth […]

  5. domenico says:

    I don’t know if it is an idea inapplicable, but if it is possible to write a computer program for the approximate behaviour of the bears in the real environment (like, for example coarse geographic planimetry, prey and food, vegetation, random walk, interaction between bears, etc.) then an optimal choice for the restocking could be obtained, using multiple population dynamic (with the same initial condition, to weigh the different time evolutions and the final results).

  6. Apropos ecosystem restoration I need to plug this more vegetarian project starting soon in Spain:

You can use Markdown or HTML in your comments. You can also use LaTeX, like this: $latex E = m c^2 $. The word 'latex' comes right after the first dollar sign, with a space after it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.