What the most endangered grizzlies in the Lower 48 don't need: A national hiking trail through their territory

What the most endangered grizzlies in the Lower 48 don't need: A national hiking trail through their territory
A wild grizzly bear. (Nathan Rupert/TNS)

I have made it a point to oppose the arch-conservatives, anarchists and extremists who rail unreservedly against the federal government in the West. I don't think national monuments, for example, represent a government land grab; quite the opposite: They protect cherished territory from being given over to corporations by the government. Grazing fees aren't highway robbery; in fact, they should be high enough to discourage public-property ranching. And I don't think agencies like the National Park Service operate in breach of my most precious constitutional rights.

It is with some embarrassment, then, that I find myself singing an anti-government chorus about the corner of the West where I live. The federal bureaucracy is way out of bounds when it comes to what's happening in the Yaak Valley, in northwestern Montana.


Does it make sense to mix smugglers, hikers and grizzlies?

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The Yaak is hidden along the U.S.-Canada border, in the Kootenai National Forest, a place so remote most people don't know it even exists. For the sake of the most endangered grizzly bears in the U.S., it's crucial that it stay that way.

Over nearly four decades, a man named Ron Strickland has doggedly pursued the idea of connecting, marking and proclaiming a new "national scenic" hiking path — the Pacific Northwest Trail — on a nearly straight line from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, passing dead-center through the heart of the territory occupied by the Yaak's remnant population of grizzlies. I have no real quarrel with another trail; I just don't want it to traverse this last beleaguered patch of bear habitat.

Only about 20 grizzlies now remain in the Yaak, perhaps no more than two reproducing females. They are cut off from other bear populations, barely hanging on. Like most grizzlies in the Lower 48, these bears are protected by the Endangered Species Act. (Yellowstone's grizzlies have been delisted, a politicized decision that's meeting well-deserved opposition in court.) Still, the Yaak bears face real threats: large clear-cuts and so-called salvage timber sales gnaw into their habitat in the Kootenai; new multinational mines are proposed nearby. There are poachers, and hunters unable to tell the difference between grizzlies and black bears.

The fate of these bears is one reason Strickland's proposal met government resistance over many years. If the Pacific Northwest Trail were even one-sixth as popular as the California-to-Canada Pacific Crest Trail (which the PNT intersects), it could attract 1,000 permitted "thru hikers" a year. They might not all make it as far as the Yaak Valley, and if they did, they might not make contact with a bear. But any grizzly-human encounter is dangerous, for the bear more than the human. A bear that becomes acclimated to hikers' campfires and trash, to searching tents for Cracker Jack and Clif bars, soon becomes a "problem" bear and then a dead bear.

The decades-long rejection by the U.S. Forest Service of the proposed trail, and in particular its objections to the proposed Yaak route, was an example of good government working in conjunction with science and society's needs. Protecting the Yaak from Strickland's recreational corridor protected significant public resources — big, wild country and an iconic endangered species, keystone of the ecosystem — for future generations. It kept the grizzly bears out of harm's way and, responsibly, avoided directing backpackers into one of the last strongholds of Ursus arctos horribilis.

However, in 2009, Strickland finally convinced then-Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) to attach the PNT proposal, undebated, to an omnibus public lands bill as a "midnight rider." The rider authorized the trail and established an advisory council to administer it, including considering exactly which existing paths, tracks and roads to mark, connect and publicize as the PNT. The council, however, has met just three times since 2015, and it has not yet formally discussed a single alternative to the Yaak route sketched out by Strickland. In the meantime, the nonprofit Pacific Northwest Trail Assn., which Strickland founded, has barreled ahead, distributing maps and developing the trail as it sees fit. The Forest Service, which once concluded the trail would be too expensive to complete and too problematic environmentally, now points to the authorization law and simply goes along with the association's program.

Already, hikers are wandering through the Yaak Valley backcountry, directed there by a trail website, and leaving messy campsites in their wake. Last year, three Canadians were caught with $1 million worth of cocaine and ecstasy in the same territory; they planned to backpack it north across the border. Does it make sense to mix smugglers, hikers and grizzlies?

Bear scientists, and a group for which I volunteer, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, are spending vast amounts of time, energy and money trying to undo the damage done and ward off what promises to be more. We've contracted on our own for an independent environmental analysis of the proposed route. And we've suggested, over and over, more than one equally wild and wonderful scenic route for the trail.

But the Pacific Northwest Trail Assn. is dug in, refusing to consider supporting a more benign trail. (The director doesn't even know what kind of bears are affected, referring to them with the Alaskan term "brown bears" — a similar race but different population.)

No one in the Yaak is about to point a loaded gun at the feds to protest the idiocy of this trail and the bureaucracy's heedlessness. We aren't planning to occupy the local Forest Service headquarters waving the American flag. What we want is to sit down with scientists and agency officials — even if the trail association has no interest in such a democratic effort — and find a solution. Let the trail come, but leave the bears out of it.

Rick Bass, the author more than 30 books, is a founding board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council. His memoir, "The Traveling Feast" will be published in June.

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