By Pat Jenkins
A grizzly bear's death in captivity last week came within hours of its counterparts in the wild receiving a vote of confidence.
Denali, a 26-year-old female grizzly seen by millions of visitors at Northwest Trek, was humanely euthanized Feb. 27 at the wildlife park near Eatonville.
The bear lived at Northwest Trek for 24 years, starting when she arrived there in 1993 as a 2-year-old as one of the first inhabitants of the park’s forested bear habitat. Since then, more than 4 million people have toured Trek, often making the bear exhibit a first stop.
Denali suffered in recent years from arthritis that limited the bear's mobility and quality of life, leading to the euthanization, said Dr. Allison Case, a Northwest Trek veterinarian.
While Trek's staff was saddened by Denali's passing, there was a bright spot the same day for grizzlies. That night, the Metro Parks Tacoma Board of Commissioners voted their support for restoring a healthy population of the bears to the North Cascades. Metro Parks runs Northwest Trek.
The board formally endorsed a proposal by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for wildlife scientists to slowly release 25 grizzly bears into remote areas of North Cascades National Park and nearby public land over five to 10 years. That kind of incremental approach has been been used successfully by biologists to restore grizzlies elsewhere in the United States, according to officials.
The proposal is part of an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the future of grizzlies. The federal agencies are taking public comment on the EIS through March 14. An online link for additional information and commenting is available at www.nwtrek.org/grizzlybears.
Thousands of grizzlies once roamed vast areas of the west, from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Plains. Their range now encompasses remote areas of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska and southwest parts of Canada. Wildlife officials estimate that fewer than 10 grizzlies remain in an area of the North Cascades that spans nearly 10,000 square miles.
Metro Parks Tacoma officials noted that the federal plan for increasing the grizzly population there dovetails with Northwest Trek's mission of educating the public about wildlife. Denali was part of that, they said.
“Grizzly bears are crucial to maintaining plant and animal diversity in Cascade forests,” said Marc Heinzman, Trek's zoological coordinator. “And we are enormously grateful for the role Denali played for nearly a quarter century of inspiring our community to appreciate grizzly bears and advocate for their protection in the wild.”
After its grizzly bear habitat is upgraded, the wildlife park will offer homes to orphaned cubs or a homeless brown bear that can’t be relocated into the wild. Currently, two 8-year-old black bears live in the forested habitat next to the grizzly space.
Heinzman said he and Trek co-workers are "saddened by the loss of Denali.
She taught us about the majesty and power of grizzly bears."
Visitors watched her scratch her back on a tree, cool off in a pool or search the the woods "food enrichments that keepers put out for her,” Heinzman related.
Denali reached the median life expectancy (half higher, half lower) of 26 years for grizzlies living in captivity, and was the eighth-oldest of its species in any U.S. zoos or wildlife parks. Toward the end, arthritis affected several joints in the bear's body, Case said.
The Northwest Trek staff tried for two years to slow the progression of the arthritis and increase Denali's mobility and comfort through anti-inflammatory, pain, joint and herbal medicine, plus chiropractic and acupuncture treatments. An elevated bed and a bridge, the latter to make it easier for the bear to cross a stream, were built for the animal.
But the bear’s condition worsened, leading to the decision to euthanize it, Case said.
Another grizzly at Northwest Trek was euthanized in September 2014. The 24-year-old male, the brother of Denali, suffered from a tumor in its abdomen and related medical problems.
Angela Gibson, the bear keeper at Trek for the last eight years, recalled than when Denali was in better health, the bear once moved rocks around its habitat to create a “ladder” to reach food in a tree.