Agencies Propose Return Of Grizzly Bears To North Cascades Ecosystem

An environmental impact statement released Thursday by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outlines strategies for returning grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem/NPS file

Grizzly bears could be recovered in the North Cascades ecosystem under a preferred alternative released Thursday by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The final environmental impact statement on the question of whether to restore the bruins is not a decision document, the agencies said, but it identifies two approaches that could return the bears to the North Cascades, including North Cascades National Park. Under the preferred alternative identified in the 416-page document, 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.

The possibility of seeing grizzlies in the ecosystem that stretches from Washington state to the border with Canada brought cheers from conservationists.

“The planned return of the grizzly bear to North Cascades National Park is a symbol of the power of perseverance,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association.

At Defenders of Wildlife, Kathleen Callaghy, the organization’s Northwest representative, said the EIS provides “hope to see grizzly bears again in this wild landscape. We are deeply grateful to [Interior] Secretary [Deb] Haaland, [Park Service] Director [Chuck] Sams, [USFWS] Director [Martha] Williams and our legislative allies for showing collaboration and partnership at its best for the sake of conservation. Today is a day to be proud.”

The North Cascades is one of the largest wild areas remaining in the lower 48 states, encompassing more than 95,000 square miles in north-central Washington. It includes North Cascades National Park and large areas of surrounding national forest. According to scientists, the area contains prime habitat that could support approximately 280 grizzly bears.

Proponents of the plan say the ecosystem “holds one of the most remote and rugged mountain ranges in the country and is one of only two grizzly bear recovery zones without an established population. The area is one of North America’s premier intact ecosystems and features optimal habitat for grizzlies. However, the last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear was in 1996. Habitat fragmentation and the low numbers of grizzlies in nearby populations make it highly unlikely that grizzlies would naturally recover in this area.”

For more than two decades biologists have been working to recover the North Cascades’ grizzlies, a threatened species. And while more than a few reports of grizzly sightings in the ecosystem that stretches north to Canada are received by state and federal officials each year, most turn out to be black bears.

The EIS examined three scenarios: One that wouldn’t adopt a restoration plan, one that would help grizzly recovery and manage the bears under the Endangered Species Act, and one that would help grizzly recovery but treat the bears as an experimental population under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act that would provide “agencies with greater management flexibility should conflict situations arise.”

A final decision is expected in “the weeks ahead,” the Park Service said.

“This is a critical moment in history, with governments, organizations, and individuals working together to welcome grizzlies back after human action removed them from their home,” said Snoqualmie Indian Tribe Tribal Chairman Robert M. de los Angeles.

If either of the restoration options is selected, the NPS and the Fish and Wildlife Service would capture bears from populations in either interior British Columbia or Wyoming and Montana. The EIS says up to seven grizzly bears per year for five to 10 years would be moved into the ecosystem until an initial population of 25 grizzly bears in the U.S. portion of the ecosystem is reached. In subsequent years, additional bears could be released as needed to help meet restoration objectives. Once an initial population of 25 grizzly bears is reached, a restoration population of 200 bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem would likely be achieved in approximately 60 to 100 years, the plan notes.

If the agencies decide to go with the alternative to designate bears a nonessential experimental population (NEP), the “proposed geographic extent for the grizzly bear NEP includes all of Washington state except an exclusion area around the Selkirk Ecosystem grizzly bear recovery where a population of bears currently exists.”

“Today we celebrate our national parks as places where wildlife thrives and ecosystems are made whole,” said Pierno. “For years, NPCA has worked tirelessly to bring grizzlies back to their historic homeland. The planned return of the grizzly bear to North Cascades National Park is a symbol of the power of perseverance.”

Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe whose territory lies within the recovery zone, said “[A]fter years of advocacy the Upper Skagit Tribe looks forward to the day the great bear returns to the rugged North Cascades which our people previously shared with grizzlies for thousands of years.”

The EIS 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, but 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.

 “(U.S.) Representative (Dan) Newhouse has been a tireless advocate for his community and his constituents regarding plans to reintroduce grizzly bears into the North Cascades Ecosystem,” Bernhard said in a release at the time. “The Trump administration is committed to being a good neighbor, and the people who live and work in north central Washington have made their voices clear that they do not want grizzly bears reintroduced into the North Cascades. Grizzly bears are not in danger of extinction, and Interior will continue to build on its conservation successes managing healthy grizzly bear populations across their existing range.”

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