Opinion

The Silvana bear

by Robert Graef

A black bear was spotted north of Marysville. It took up residence in the median of I-5 near Silvana where it grazed on lush grass. Once game officials were alerted, they trapped it and transported it to a new high-country home near Mount Baker. The bear wasn’t consulted about being evicted or relocated.

Since wild animals don’t speak we feel it is our duty to make decisions for them. If the bear had been able to speak he would have said, “No thanks, I’m happy here. Lowland grasses beat Mt. Baker’s brush any day, especially since I have garbage cans to raid for dessert. Granted, crossing I-5 at night in a black fur suit is chancy but Mount Baker? Get serious.”

It was thirty years ago when our horses went nuts and charged their fences. Their pasture, now full of houses, lay across the street from what is now Cedarcrest’s 4th green. Grove Street petered out at 71st in those days except for a narrow gravel lane that served the only two houses up the hill. The hill was crested with tall firs and hosted dens of coyotes that sang my family to sleep. I miss their music.

It was a bear that had spooked the horses. We found its paw-prints in mud near the horses’ shelter. Not a big one but definitely a bear. Across the years we’ve shooed away a zoo-full of critters including raccoons, deer, possums, beaver and even a fisher which turned out to be the most aggressive of the lot. This land we inhabit was once prime habitat for wildlife. It was Eden, a place where hunting and grazing animals lolled about in a mild climate and surplus of food.

The land was also flat, fertile and cheap so waves of immigrants evicted its woodsy inhabitants by turning forests into cropland, more recently selling the fields off to developers. Along with settlement came a new definition for wildlife habitat: “Wildlife habitat consists of those patches of land that offer no potential for human exploitation or development.” Again, wildlife has no voice so it’s up to us to decide where it shouldn’t live.

It’s the way of the world. Strong trumps weak, be it coyotes over rabbits, poachers over elephants, Serbs over Croats, White settlers over Indians, orcas over seals, ranchers over Brazilian rain-forests or man over bear.

As civilization encroaches ever-deeper into the hinterland, the definition of wildlife habitat is going to get more editing until it says something like this: “Wildlife habitat is any land that is too steep, too infertile or too foreboding to attract humans.” That’s approximately where the Silvana bear was taken.

A hill lying southeast of Issaquah carries the name, Cougar Mountain. The past three decades saw homes climb the mountain until it they thoroughly infiltrated the mountain’s second and third growth forest. About the time Cougar Mountain’s last forests were invaded by an adventurous residential developer, a homeowner flew into a tizzy when she spotted a cougar prowling her back yard. Animal control officers initiated a hunt. I am unclear as to what was done with the cat though it surely was hauled away dead or alive. No cougars on Cougar Mountain, thank you.

Different versions of that story are played out wherever homes encroach on wildlife habitat. In cougar habitat, count on there being populations of the different species cougars enjoy for dinner. Take away the raccoons, deer, rodents and ground-nesting birds and cougars will fill the voids in their menu with cocker spaniels, tabby cats and chickens. Though cougars aren’t up to philosophizing about such things, they do understand hunger and are hard-wired to do whatever it takes to fill their stomachs Take away the cougars and we’re overrun with raccoons, deer and possums.

Another problem: The postage-stamp patches of wilderness we concede to wildlife are often too small to support breeding populations that ensure enough variety in the gene-pool to keep wild animals from suffering the destructive in-breeding that plagues puppy-mills. One solution lies in opening links between remaining wildlife areas. The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Project (WWRP) is now working to link remaining wild areas on Issaquah’s Cougar, Tiger and Squak mountains. Nothing on that scale is scheduled for Snohomish County.

King County is also establishing a 120-mile “greenway” along I-90 between Bellevue and Eastern Washington. A quote from the mission statement of its sponsoring organization, the Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust: “To protect and enhance scenic beauty, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, historic communities and healthy economies in a multi-use greenway …” Basically, it ensures access to a huge swath of rural and forested land. Seen from a wildlife perspective, the plan establishes recreational trails so that recreationists can further invade wildlife habitat.

The problem is people. The population of Snohomish County has reached 700,000, having nearly doubled since 1980. Initiatives to reserve land for wildlife are largely no more good intentions and as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So what happens when a greenway reaches Mount Baker to trigger another face-off between humans and the relocated Silvana Bear? Where will we take him next? The zoo?

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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