About 16 pregnant ewes lounge beneath a lone tree on a ranch in north-central Washington’s Methow Valley.
They stand up, shaking snow from their heavy wool as Kate Haven and I walk closer. Her two sheepdogs notice us from about a football field away. They recognize Haven, but not me — prompting them to start barking out of a sense of duty to protect their flock.
“So that’s Callie there. She’s about two-and-a-half. And that’s Alfred,” Haven said, petting the beefy sheepdogs on their heads. This pair is new to the farm. Haven hopes they’ll be just like the early generations of sheepdogs who kept fierce watch over her flock.
“When they sense a threat, usually the female, she would just go around and get all of the sheep in a corner of the pasture, and she would just plant herself in front of that flock and stand there,” Haven said. “And then her brother would go right up to the fence line and bark and try to chase off the predator.”
Usually that’s a coyote or a cougar. In the springtime she sees black bears come to feast on berry farms and orchards in the valley where Haven and her partner, Bill Tackman, operate the McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch.
But a new plan could bring more grizzly bears to Washington’s North Cascades. It’s an idea that’s drawn passionate arguments for decades.
For Haven’s part, she feels secure, even though the ranch backs up to wilderness. She puts all her confidence in Callie and Alfred. And also in the ranch’s expensive five-foot fence with a double-barbed wire rim. Haven said, for now, her attitude is live and let live.
“I’m actually thrilled to have wildlife thriving all around me. Bears, wolves, cougars, other predators — they’re part of nature. And that’s what we live with,” she said.
Others, including fellow ranchers and recreationalists, aren’t so sure. Far from it. They worry about safety. They’ve dealt with livestock losses from wolves and are feeling some predator PTSD.
George Wolner and his wife, Tina Champeaux, are with the Skagit County chapter of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights. Wolner is worried about an errant grizzly bear wandering onto his 17-acre property and feasting on livestock if enough berries and other food aren’t available.
Wolner doesn’t think grizzlies will just stick to berries and deer.
He makes this comparison: “If I don’t get lasagna one day, I may have to eat chili, OK? And if they get hungry enough, they’re going to eat what they can get,” Wolner said.
“Yeah, they will,” Champeaux agreed.
They worry, if their livestock is attacked, that it would be difficult to get compensated for the damage — and they’re convinced they wouldn’t be paid a fair market value.
The government is proposing several options for recovering grizzly bears in the North Cascades. Plans range from doing nothing to bringing in a few grizzlies slowly to even more aggressive relocation efforts. The ultimate goal would be to increase the population to 200 bears over anywhere from 60 to 100 years.
People can submit public comments on the draft environmental impact statement at open houses across the state. All meetings are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m.:
• Cashmere: Feb. 14, Riverside Center, 201 Riverside Drive.
• Winthrop: Feb. 15, the Red Barn, 51 state Route 20.
• Omak: Feb. 16, Annex Facility at Okanogan County Fairgrounds, 175 Rodeo Trail Road.
• Bellingham: Feb. 21, Oxford Suites, 4051 Meridian St.
• Darrington: Feb. 22, Darrington Community Center, 570 Sauk Ave.
• Sultan: Feb. 23, Sultan High School, 13715 310th Ave. SE.
• Renton: Feb. 24, Renton Community Center, 1715 Maple Valley Highway.
U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Bill Gaines has spent his entire career educating people about grizzly bears — from how they could affect hiking trails to their diets in the North Cascades.
“Fifteen to 20 percent is animal material: fish, deer carcasses, elk. 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,” Gaines said.
“Bears recovering in the North Cascades on their own is very, very small. In fact it probably isn’t going to happen,” he said.
Grizzlies reproduce slower than most any other mammal in North America. Only muskox are slower.
Gaines doesn’t expect to see North Cascades grizzlies regularly in his lifetime — or that of his teenage daughter.
Gaines said the characteristics, unique to this specific population, are in danger of disappearing with them.
Twenty-five years after he started studying these bears, Gaines said there are probably only a handful left.
“Sometimes I’ve thought maybe what I’m documenting here is a species going extinct in an ecosystem,” Gaines said. “Kind of maybe slipping through our fingers.”
The fate of grizzly bears in the North Cascades may be up to what people in Washington say. People can make online comments on the plan through March 14.