Feds reinvigorate efforts to restore grizzly bears in Washington’s rugged North Cascades

Eli Francovich / The Spokesman’s Review

A federal stop-and-go process to restore grizzlies in Washington’s rugged North Cascades resumed Thursday. However, unlike previous efforts, the federal government is considering a separate designation that would provide more flexibility when managing individual bears.

“It’s certainly encouraging,” said Joe Scott, international program director for Conservation Northwest. Scott spent nearly 30 years trying to bring the grizzlies back to Washington.

The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday the launch of a new environmental impact statement process to “evaluate grizzly bear restoration and management options.” The first of four public meetings will take place on Tuesday.

“This is a great first step in determining how to chart a course to restore grizzly bears to their rightful habitat,” Scott said.

The proposal has been criticized by some who fear the apex predator will kill livestock and endanger humans.

“The introduction of grizzly bears to the North Cascades would have a direct and negative impact on the people and communities I represent,” 4th District U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse said in a statement. “My constituents and I have consistently opposed proposals to do so under multiple administrations because introducing an apex predator to the region would threaten families, wildlife and livestock in north central Washington. It is disappointing that local voices are once again ignored by federal bureaucrats, even after the last process was halted due to overwhelming local opposition.”

Newhouse encouraged Washingtonians to attend scheduled public meetings.

In a previous effort, which started in 2014 and was halted by the Home Office in 2020, the agencies garnered more than 140,000 comments. They have also published a draft environmental impact statement. That statement offered three alternatives to restore a population of about 200 bears, all based on a plan to relocate the animals to 9,800 square miles of mostly public land in and around North Cascades National Park.

That work and that feedback is not wasted, said North Cascades National Park wildlife program manager Jason Ransom.

“We’ll start where we left off and edit from there,” he said.

As of 2020, the Park Service has continued to study reintroduction and found that it remains feasible.

For example, a study looking at various models of climate change found that suitable habitat for grizzly bears in the North Cascades will likely increase as shrubs – such as blueberries – expand their range at higher elevations, a Ransom said. This study is going through the final stages of peer review. The Parks Service received the final green light from the Department of the Interior to begin the public process on Tuesday, Ransom said.

Unlike previous efforts, the agencies will consider experimental population designations, which allow “much more flexibility” regarding the management of animals listed under the Endangered Species Act and could alleviate concerns about the local control of the federal government, Ransom said.

Although it’s a half-day drive from Seattle, the North Cascades feature some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the Lower 48. Historically, it was prime grizzly bear habitat, with a 2018 Park Service historical analysis that found 178 credible grizzly bear sightings. between 1859 and 2015. The report reviewed fur trade records and in-person sightings. He also examined older accounts and archaeological evidence of Native American cultures in Washington.

The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in the US portion of the North Cascades was in 1996.

The North Cascades ecosystem, which stretches from Interstate 90 north to the Canadian border, is one of five grizzly bear recovery areas in the United States.

Should a reintroduction occur, the USFWS would have primary responsibility for animal management. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would provide scientific monitoring and outreach to local communities and recreational enthusiasts, according to a WDFW statement.

“We are committed to restoring grizzly bears to Washington and plan to partner with federal agencies and provide technical support for their initiative,” Eric Gardner, WDFW Wildlife Program Director, said in a statement.

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