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Conservationists concerned about threats to grizzly bears on Pacific Northwest Trail

Grizzly bear
Endangered grizzlies might be put under more threat in the Yaak Valley region if more hikers trek the Pacific Northwest Trail (Image credit: Getty Images)

At a time when Covid-19 restrictions have attracted record numbers of people to America's National Parks, conservationists are worried the already endangered grizzly bear could become even more threatened. National Geographic reports that a 70-mile section of the Pacific Northwest Trail – running through Montana's Yaak Valley – has come under scrutiny.

The Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), formally known as the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, is a 1200-mile trail that runs from the Rocky Mountains in Montana, through Idaho and Washington state before reaching the Pacific Ocean. Hugging the Canadian border the entire way, the PNT passes through one of America's few inland temperate rainforests.

Grizzlies nearly went extinct in the region 40 years ago, and their numbers have recovered slightly, rising from single digits to roughly 60. In 1980, the US Forest Service decided the PNT posed a threat to both grizzlies and caribou (a species now extinct in the region). 

hikers in the woods look out over a lake

The Pacific Northwest Trail is 1200 miles long, running from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean (Image credit: Getty Images)

Conservationists have argued that with more hikers discovering more trails due to the pandemic, there is a clear threat to the population of grizzlies. There has also been enhanced exposure on the PNT specifically, with the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof documenting his hike there.

However, it has been estimated that only 75 people a year hike the trail, highlighting just how little the trail is actually used. Some local people are even unaware of the trail, which is one of the wildest and most remote places in the US.

The Pacific Northwest Trail Association, charged with maintaining and supporting the current route, don't expect a sharp increase in the number of hikers trekking through. This is largely to do with there only being a short weather window when hikers can safely make their way through without snow.

"There’s zero recorded conflicts between grizzly bears and users," explained the association's executive director, Jeff Kish. 

The debate is ongoing, with the Yaak Valley Forest Council suing the US Forest Service over a nine-years-overdue plan for the route. Filed in 2019, the lawsuit is making its way through the courts.