Agencies Decide To Work On Restoring Grizzly Bears In North Cascades

A plan to return grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem will move forward/USFWS file

A plan to recover grizzly bears in the North Cascades ecosystem in Washington will move forward, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday.

The decision comes just a month after the two agencies outlined two proposals for recovering the bears, a threatened species. Under the preferred alternative, the bears would be designated a “nonessential experimental” population, the Endangered Species Act designation used in the 1990s when wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park. Such a designation gives federal agencies more leeway in managing the species that would not otherwise be available under existing ESA regulations.

“The final 10(j) rule is based on extensive community engagement and conversations about how the return of a grizzly bear population in the North Cascades will be actively managed to address concerns about human safety, property and livestock, and grizzly bear recovery,” said Brad Thompson, state supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “It provides an expanded set of management tools in recognition that grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades is dependent on community tolerance of grizzly bears.” 

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will publish a final 10(j) rule in the Federal Register in coming days.

“Today marks a triumph for park wildlife with grizzly bears returning home to North Cascades National Park. The decision to restore the grizzly bear is a testament to America’s courage to give one of our wildest animals the freedom to rebound,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. “For years, NPCA has worked to bring back the grizzly to the rugged alpine meadows they roamed for thousands of years. It’s proof that when we come together with a resounding call for conservation, we can do extraordinary things.”

The recovery plan is to play out in one of the largest wild areas remaining in the lower 48 states that spans roughly 9,500 square miles in north-central Washington. It includes North Cascades National Park and large areas of surrounding national forest; all told, roughly 85 percent of the recovery area is under federal management. According to scientists, the area contains prime grizzly habitat that ranges from “temperate rainforests on the western side of the Cascade Range to dry Pondersoa pine forests and sage-steppe on the east side” that could support approximately 280 grizzly bears. 

In the Record of Decision released Thursday, the agencies said they would move grizzly bears from other ecosystems in the Rocky Mountains or interior British Columbia into the North Cascades. The decision is the culmination of an Environmental Impact Statement process that began in 2022.

The agencies said there has not been any confirmed grizzly bear presence in the North Cascades ecosystem since 1996. The recovery plan calls for the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to move three-seven grizzly bears per year for a period of five to 10 years to establish an initial population of 25 bears in the area. The U.S. portion of the North Cascades ecosystem is larger than the state of New Jersey, the agencies said, and contains some of the most intact wildlands in the contiguous United States. 

“We are going to once again see grizzly bears on the landscape, restoring an important thread in the fabric of the North Cascades,” North Cascades Superintenent Don Striker said in a release.

Public feedback played a key role in the decision, the agencies said, noting that during last fall’s public comment period more than 12,000 comments were received on both the draft Environmental Impact Statement and a proposed 10(j) rule.

There is no set timeline for when translocation of grizzly bears to the ecosystem may begin. The Park Service will publish updates on the park’s website and notify partners and the public of implementation plans as they develop.

“The Upper Skagit celebrates this decision for the great bear, the environment, and everyone who desires a return to a healthy Indigenous ecosystem,” said Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “We urge the agencies to move forward and put paws on the ground so the recovery may begin.”

The decision to move ahead with grizzly restoration in the North Cascades comes four years after then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt halted work on the document.

Back in 2017, Park Service staff at North Cascades National Park were evaluating public comment previously made on the recovery proposal, when Interior officials told them to stop the work. But in March 2018 then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the agency to resume the work. Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff continued working on a draft recovery plan until July 2020, when Bernhardt announced  at a roundtable with community members in Omak, Washington, that the plan would not move forward.

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