Opposition mounts to national trail in Yaak grizzly country

The Pacific Northwest Trail is a 1200-mile hiking trail running from the Continental Divide in Montana to the Pacific Ocean on Washington’s Olympic Coast. (Map by Pacific Northwest Trail Association)

Only a short section of the Pacific Northwest Trail passes through northwest Montana. But Congress put it in one of the worst spots for grizzly bears, so some want the trail moved farther south.

Recently, about 50 people settled into the Montgomery Distillery, holiday drinks in hand, and pondered the postcards littering the tables. Three versions were addressed to each member of Montana’s congressional delegation, asking them to sponsor an act that would move the Montana portion of the Pacific Northwest Trail from its current route south of the Canadian border to a more southerly path running below Lake Koocanusa and through the towns of Libby and Troy.

Near a large map set up at the back of the room, a slight man with a determined gaze stepped to the microphone and told the hushed audience if they’d fill out the postcards, he’d mail them.

“Because the trail was created by an act of Congress, it will take an act of Congress to change it,” said Rick Bass, a noted environmental writer and Yaak Valley activist. “Every time I talk to the delegation, they say ‘We’re not hearing from enough people; it sounds like it’s just you.’ It’s not just me.”

The Pacific Northwest Trail is a 1,200-mile through-hike trail running east-west between Glacier National Park and the Pacific Ocean, similar to the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. But unlike those trails, the Pacific Northwest is a late-comer, having been designated only about a decade ago.

Prior to that, various routes were bandied about as the Pacific Northwest Trail Association pushed to finalize enough of the trail to earn designation. During that time, the current section of trail running through the Yaak Valley and Purcell Mountains was given numerous thumbs-down. 

For 32 years, both the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service said the northern path would be bad for bears, passing directly through prime habitat.

Now is the time to make the change or the 25 grizzly bears eking out an existence in the Yaak probably won’t do well enough to come off the endangered species list, biologists say. (National Park Service)

“Female grizzlies with cubs depend on alpine habitat in the Yaak,” Bass said. “But if you’ve been to the Yaak, you know there’s not much alpine habitat. Just these small meadows, some not much larger than this room. That’s where the bears go to stay out of trouble and get summer and early fall nutrition. It’s just not a good place to put a high volume of hikers.”

The late University of Montana bear expert Chuck Jonkel studied the region and proposed the more southerly route decades ago. That route is also supported by current biologists, including Lance Craighead, son of grizzly bear expert Frank Craighead, David Mattson, Wayne McCrory and Barrie Gilbert

Canadian First Nations groups and some state environmental groups and local businesses are backing the biologists. In the audience, representatives of Missoula organizations Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Vital Ground were there to hear Bass, but neither organization has voiced a position on the issue.

A few years after the trail was designated in 2008, the Yaak Valley Forest Council and other grizzly bear advocates learned that a paragraph setting the northern route in stone had been quietly inserted into an omnibus bill. That’s when they launched their effort to fight back.

Bass said the Yaak Valley Forest Council had two choices: try to de-authorize the Montana section of trail completely until grizzly bears recover or propose an alternate route. Wanting to propose a workable solution, they went with the latter. 

Bass himself would rather see no trail – that’s what biologists recommend – but if the southerly route can bring business to the struggling economies of Libby and Troy, he’ll back it.

The Pacific Northwest Trail hasn’t really caught on yet – only about 60 or 70 attempt the three-state trek each year. So the number of people hasn’t reached the point where they disturb wildlife too much. But if the popularity reaches the levels of other national scenic trails – about 3,000 march down the Appalachian Trail every year – the bears and probably the people could be in trouble.

Now is the time to make the change or the 25 grizzly bears eking out an existence in the Yaak probably won’t do well enough to come off the endangered species list.

Rick Bass

“Twenty-five grizzly bears in a million-acre valley. That’s a number that gets your attention – it certainly got mine,” Bass said. 

Recent events could make things worse for the Yaak grizzlies.

Depending on what the new buyer does with the Weyerhaeuser lands between Kalispell and Libby, Yaak bears could lose connection to the grizzlies to the east in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the Kootenai National Forest approved the 2,600-acre Black Ram timber sale a few weeks ago in the same area where the Pacific Northwest Trail is. To achieve its goal of 60 million board feet of lumber, the U.S. Forest Service would remove old-growth timber from those small alpine areas Bass mentioned in the name of “regeneration.”

“We’ll fix that in court,” Bass said. “But this trail is going to have to be fixed in Congress, which is harder.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.