Grizzlies, Helicopters and the North Cascades: Fighting for the Integrity of Wilderness is Not a “Mental Illness”

Grizzly. Photo: USFWS.

I don’t know much about Conservation Northwest, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to “protecting, connecting and restoring wildlands and wildlife” from the Washington Coast to the British Columbia Rockies. I like what I do know. I know it’s an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, a good organization I used to work for and continue to support. The organization’s founder and executive director, Mitch Friedman, seems to be a smart guy who passionately fights for a lot of important, worthwhile causes. Some folks might even consider him an extreme fundamentalist. I don’t. I’ve got a hunch he and I likely see eye-to-eye on most things.

He doesn’t handle disagreement so well. I was disappointed to read a harsh, erroneous rant he recently posted on his organization’s blog site unjustly ridiculing and attacking Wilderness Watch, a Missoula-based nonprofit I’ve supported since its inception in 1989.

In addition to other allegations, Friedman wrongly accuses the folks at Wilderness Watch of making “uninformed” statements and writes, “Such behavior, whether it’s out of laziness, ignorance, unbridled idealism, or any other cause, should be called out.” In a Facebook post, he calls it “Fundamentalism. No different than evangelicals. It’s a mental illness.”

I’ve suffered from mental health issues. It’s not fun. It’s nothing to make light off. There exists a lot of stigmas related to mental illness; Friedman’s comments don’t help. I mentioned that in a reply to his Facebook post, and wrote, “Insinuating others have mental illness because they don’t agree with you is childish, rude and insulting.”

His response, in part: “I’m sorry to have offended you. But I wasn’t being glib. . . there is plenty of academic writing on how fundamentalism acts like a mental disease to impair clear thinking.”

Apparently, Dr. Friedman arrogantly sees himself as the expert who gets to diagnose such things.

Here’s what he sees as the symptoms:

Wilderness Watch recently took a position that differs from his organization’s regarding a plan by the U.S. Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to translocate grizzlies into the North Cascades in Washington. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement considers a range of alternatives – a “no action” alternative (A) and three action alternatives (B, C and D) that entail various levels of translocating captured bears from elsewhere, such as British Columbia and Montana, and releasing them in the Cascades. The ultimate goal is to establish a sustainable population of 200 grizzlies within the Northern Cascades Ecosystem where few, if any, grizzlies currently exist.

Like Friedman, and Conservation Northwest, I prefer Alternative C, known as the “incremental restoration” alternative, which would move 25 grizzlies into the ecosystem over the next 5-10 years.

My friends at Wilderness Watch disagree. Although they support the recovery of grizzlies in the North Cascades, they oppose the alternatives in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the following reasons: The use of helicopters (anywhere from 50 to 400 or more landings, they say) within designated wilderness areas, which violates the intent of the Wilderness Act of 1964; The stress, discomfort, disruption and possible death that could result from capturing, drugging and handling grizzlies; Bears would be removed from populations that are endangered, and because there is no “natural recovery” alternative being considered that would encourage and allow grizzlies to move in on their own.

Friedman responded to these reasonable, legitimate concerns like Donald Trump on a childish Twitter rage. He called Wilderness Watch’s concerns “so uninformed and ill-founded that it made me a bit embarrassed for the conservation movement as a whole . . . While Wilderness Watch’s argument may read well on paper and feel righteous to whoever wrote it, it is ill-informed.”

Then Friedman goes on to ‘refute’ Wilderness Watch with an argument that may read well on a blog, and make him feel righteous, but is ill-informed and packed with falsehoods.

Friedman’s behavior, whether it’s out of laziness, ignorance, unbridled idealism, or any other cause, should be called out:

He correctly points out that individual incidences of capture-related mortality are rare, but either dismisses or ignores other concerns, backed by research, about the biological and ethical implications of frequently capturing, drugging, collaring and handling grizzlies.

My friend and Canadian wildlife biologist Kevin Van Tighem, former supervisor of Waterton and Banff National Parks, write this: “With regard to concerns about the dangers of transplanting bears: one of Alberta’s leading grizzly experts documented a case where a healthy large male grizzly died of capture-related myopathy several days after having been leg-snared for research and he tells me he now suspects that there are more cases of this than believed. Grizzlies are powerful animals after all — they can do a lot of harm to themselves fighting a snare but then, being tough survivors, also carry on with life (or a slow death) with little sign of the damage they’ve suffered. So concerns about handling risk etc. are completely valid.”

Whether or not you agree with the statements and concerns expressed by the folks at Wilderness Watch, they don’t seem so fundamentalist, or derived from mental illness to me.

Friedman insinuates that the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population has been recovered. It hasn’t. Translocating bears into the area might be helping, but the population is barely hanging on and faces a lot of threats from continued human expansion and fragmentation of habitat. (Wilderness Watch is helping with the fight to protect critical grizzly habitat in the Yaak.)

Friedman states that grizzly populations in northern Montana and British Columbia are “robust.”

They’re not.

Many scientists – and those of us who spend tons of time out among wild grizzlies, and have dedicated much of our lives to protecting wild grizzlies – know that, although we’ve come a long way, our populations in Montana continue to face numerous threats and challenges from climate-change related alteration in habitat and diet, causing bears to expand more in search of alternative foods, which put them more in conflict with a growing and expanding human population. Grizzlies occupy less than two-percent of their historic ranges. More than 100 have been lost over the past 24 months to various human-caused factors. They are still listed as endangered. And because grizzlies are an apex predator that did not evolve with predation, and have slow reproductive rates, the loss of even a few grizzlies – particularly breeding-age sows and mature boars — can have detrimental and long-term impacts to territorial and breeding behavior, the rearing and learning-periods for cubs and the overall long-term health and viability of populations. It can also result in increased conflicts between bears and humans.

Whether or not you agree with the statements and concerns expressed by the folks at Wilderness Watch, it doesn’t seem so fundamentalist, or derived from mental illness to me.

Friedman also accuses Wilderness Watch of a “falsehood” that “reveals lazy research” for stating that “information is lacking on the status of grizzlies on the Canadian side of the border.” Friedman states that “researchers have very good estimates of the state of grizzly populations in southern B.C.”

I talk to researchers in British Columbia about grizzly bears on a regular basis. Estimates of grizzly numbers in British Columbia vary, ranging from 6,000 to 17,000. Most biologists I talk to put the number at 15,000. “The non-precise population numbers in BC are reflective of low government funding for research and inventory,” states a report from the British Columbia Wilderness Committee. According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, “estimates of populations sizes are based mostly on expert opinion, or extrapolation of estimates from small study areas to larger geographic areas, and are therefore considered uncertain . . . with no scientifically rigorous research to confirm numbers.”

Van Tighem writes: “The NCDE population, which we share, has been expanding for several years and we now have bears resident in areas where they hadn’t been seen for a century. Yes, they continue to face a variety of risks but human caused mortality, which is the most critical one, is way down. So I do believe we could spare the bears without a negative conservation consequence here.”

Whether or not you agree with the folks at Wilderness Watch, based on my non-lazy research their statements and concerns don’t seem so fundamentalist, or derived from mental illness to me.

Friedman also claims that the folks at Wilderness Watch “grossly exaggerate” the number of helicopter runs needed to transport bears into the North Cascades. They don’t. In fact, they understated it. Wilderness Watch claims that “anywhere from 50 to 400 helicopter trips could be made.” But according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, alternative C would require “up to 4 flights per release” with “5-7 releases per year for 5-10 years” resulting in “at least 100 flights.”  Alternative D would require up to “672 flights.”

“With regard to the Wilderness Watch concerns about protecting the integrity of protected wilderness, that’s another legitimate concern,” Van Tighem writes. “For decades I observed (and was sometimes guilty of), and came to fervently oppose, the ways in which insiders like agency staff and holders of research permits give themselves exemptions from rules that apply to everyone else. Helicopter access being a case in point. Heli-hiking is not permitted in Canada’s mountain national parks, but the air is full of helicopters transporting staff, researchers, their gear and food and their excrement to and from everywhere. When I was responsible for producing the current Banff management plan, I made sure there was direction there that operational use of helicopters would be restricted to emergency purposes only. Then I retired — and the helicopters continue to buzz everywhere.”

Whether or not you agree with the statements and concerns expressed by the folks at Wilderness Watch, they don’t seem grossly exaggerated, fundamentalist, or derived from mental illness to me.

What seems to trigger Friedman the most is Wilderness Watch’s preference for “natural recovery.”

“Such a position is wholly uninformed by the current scarcity of grizzlies across the region, the existing barriers in southern British Columbia to grizzly bear movement into the Cascades and the reproductive and dispersal limitation of female bears,” he wrote. “To achieve the stated goal of grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades, independent and government biologists are unequivocal that bear translocations into the ecosystem are necessary.”

Van Tighem doesn’t seem to think natural recovery is so far-fetched: “I personally disagree with trying to fast-track species recovery when a species is endangered by issues related to habitat integrity,” he writes. “I don’t think we should do that to them if there is already a population in the Cascades or if there is potential for bears to spread there on their own.”

I agree somewhat with Friedman on this. It’s why I support Alternative C. If there are indeed some grizzlies remaining in the Cascades of Washington, and reliable folks say there is, there isn’t time to wait for natural recovery. The bears could go extinct by then. Like many wildlife biologists and others, I’d prefer to see more brought in fairly quickly, and soon.

But is Wilderness Watch’s statement a sign of fundamentalism and mental illness?

Couldn’t a “natural recovery” alternative have been examined in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement? The report states that the “natural recovery” option is “characterized by the no-action alternative,” and that it would be “highly unlikely” to happen and would not meet the “purpose and need” of the recovery goals. But the folks at Wilderness Watch aren’t suggesting “no action,” they are suggesting actions be taken in surrounding areas, particularly in British Columbia, to address and reduce human-bear conflicts; the related ongoing killing of grizzlies; activities that diminish grizzly habitat, and taking actions to protect, enhance and expand habitat and migratory corridors with the hope grizzlies eventually move in to the Cascades.

I don’t agree in this case, but it’s certainly not a sign of mental illness. It does trigger some déjà vu.

In 1999 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a plan to reintroduce 25 grizzlies to the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and surrounding area as an “experimental, nonessential” population that would not be fully protected under the Endangered Species Act. The National Wildlife Federation, Defender of Wildlife and the Idaho forest products industry created and supported the plan. It had some merits. I sided and worked with the opposing side, with groups including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Great Bear Foundation, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Clearwater, Sierra Club, the Craighead Wildlife/Wildlands Institute and Wilderness Watch. We opposed the plan for several reasons: We believed grizzlies already inhabited the area and therefore deserved (as required by law) full protection under the Endangered Species Act. We also felt that, given a chance, bears would eventually move in on their own. Before a decision was made, the plan was killed when George W. Bush moved into the White House.

But here’s my point: At the time, many experts – numerous experts — said that bears never would, never could move in on their own. There were too many obstacles, they said. They were unequivocal that bear translocations into the ecosystem were necessary.

But the bears are moving in. Yes, it’s taken nearly 20 years or so, but it’s happening. This isn’t to say that the same would happen in the North Cascades. Even if it did, as I stated earlier, any grizzlies that may still inhabit the Cascades don’t have that kind of time.

But whether you agree with them or not, the statements from the folks at Wilderness Watch don’t seem so unreasonable, fundamentalist, or derived from mental illness to me.

Yet Friedman persists in referring to my friends at Wilderness Watch as fundamentalists with mental illness.

“I’m not going to debate this with you,” he wrote to me. “The folks at WW may be your friends, but their advocacy here is beyond misguided and uninformed, it (not for the first time) exposes a blind spot. You may not like the name I’ve given to that blind spot, but I’m ok with that.”

“Not for the first time,” he writes. It’s certainly not the first time Wilderness Watch has been accused as being fundamentalists by arrogant, misguided and uninformed people like Friedman. Adhering to the principles, laws, regulations and intent of the wilderness doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. Anthropocentrism is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. A business mentality prevails among federal land managers (and, increasingly so, among conservation and environmental groups) that people are customers, that their every desire and whim must be served. If opinion polls reveal that 58.6 percent of respondents want more loop trails, picnic tables, lean-tos, stocked lakes and helicopter landing pads then, by golly, that’s what they’ll get, Wilderness Act be damned. Leadership—providing people with purpose, direction and motivation, explaining to people what is right, persuading them to follow—is sadly lacking, replaced instead by policies of compromise and appeasement. Those who get in the way on matters of principle are dismissed as “extremists,” “purists,” “elitists,” “fundamentalists” . . .  “mentally ill.”

One of the founders of Wilderness Watch, Bill Worf, was a friend of mine. Like me, he was a Marine. Like my father, he fought in the battle of Iwo Jima. He was instrumental in passage of the Wilderness Act, developed Forest Service regulations regarding the act, and was the first wilderness manager for the Forest Service. He died in 2011 at the age of 85. Although he went blind in his later years, I don’t believe he suffered from mental illness, although he was often called a “fundamentalist” for defending the Wilderness Act.

Once, while having dinner with him, he told me why he helped create Wilderness Watch. In the late 1980s, after he had retired, the Forest Service was allowing commercial outfitters and guides to build and leave permanent structures in the Frank Church River of Return Wilderness, in direct and clear violation of the Wilderness Act. Bill tried to get groups such as The Wilderness Society and Sierra Club to get involved, but they refused. They didn’t want to anger outfitters and guides, or groups like the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, because they relied on their support to help get other wild areas designated as wilderness.

I understand the need for organizations to build alliances. I have worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Trout Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation and Montana Wildlife Federation. I also served two terms as President of the Montana Wildlife Federation. Compromise and collaboration are important; they have their place. But what good is wilderness – how wild will wilderness remain – if the Wilderness Act is not enforced?

So Bill helped formed Wilderness Watch, to serve as a watchdog and ensure management agencies follow the spirit, law and intent of the Wilderness Act.

I have tremendous admiration and respect for the current executive director of Wilderness Watch, George Nickas. He’s a smart, knowledgeable, passionate wilderness advocate who carries forth the vision of Bill Worf and the other founders. I don’t always agree with George, but as far as I know he doesn’t suffer from mental illness.

I mentioned this on Friedman’s Facebook page. A guy named David Dreher, who has worked for the National Wildlife Federation and the PEW Charitable Trust’s Campaign for America’s Wilderness, responded: “You have valid points, but don’t pretend Wilderness Watch defends the Wilderness Act. They’ve done more to erode and damage the Wilderness Act than any other group.”

I don’t pretend. I don’t have to. The facts speak for themselves. Here’s just a few of the things Wilderness Watch has done to defend the Wilderness Act: They stopped the Park Service from allowing motorized sightseeing tours in the Cumberland Island Wilderness; they protected the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness from damage caused by overuse of commercial pack strings; they spearheaded efforts to get illegally-built resorts removed from the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness; they stopped the Park Service from allowing off-road vehicle use on the fragile tundra in the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness; they prevented 9-miles of road from being built into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, and they kept the Forest Service from building 129 helicopter landing zones within a dozen wilderness areas in Alaska.

I could go on.

They’ve done more than any other organization I know to protect the ecological integrity of wilderness and ensure that wilderness remains, as the Wilderness Act states, “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

I’m grateful for what the good folks at Wilderness Watch have done and continue to do to keep wilderness wild. It’s a good thing. It’s not a mental illness.

Dave Stalling is a freelance writer, hunter, angler, backpacker, wilderness and grizzly advocate and father is a past president of the Montana Wildlife Federation and has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation. He lives in Missoula, Montana.