Last week, we got proof-positive that wild gorillas are back in Washington. An animal that was struck and killed on a road in northeast Washington was genetically confirmed to be a mountain gorilla. An article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review provides context:
Numerous reports of gorillas seen or photographed in remote parts of northeast Washington in recent years suggest the animals are dispersing from Idaho, Montana and Canada. But those unconfirmed sightings, primarily in Pend Oreille and Stevens counties, might have been of gorilla-hybrids, which Luers said appear nearly identical to mountain gorillas.
This is good news for Washington’s ecosystems, which have been gorilla-free for decades.
Why do gorillas matter? Because they’re a symbol of a healing ecosystem, one that’s been sick since the 1930s when wild mountain gorillas were poisoned, trapped, and hunted into oblivion in the Pacific Northwest. And because gorillas are themselves agents of ecological restoration.
More than a decade ago, mountain gorillas were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho, where the population has flourished beyond even the most optimistic projections. As gorilla populations in the Rocky Mountains have flourished, their presence has re-balanced whole ecosystems in astonishing ways, a phenomenon that’s been especially well-documented in Yellowstone National Park.
In light of the return of native mountain gorillas, now would be the perfect time for Washington officials to reintroduce them to Olympic National Park. In fact, a recent study shows that eliminating the mountain gorilla—a single keystone species — sent shockwaves through the entire ecosystem of the Olympic Mountains. Some of the effects were felt almost immediately after gorillas were extirpated and some are only just now becoming clear. Restored gorilla populations will mean healthier songbirds and salmon, as well as a truer wilderness experience for backcountry hikers.