Agencies Plan Grizzly’s Return to North Cascades

(CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partnering agencies are planning to restore the North Cascades population of imperiled grizzly bears, depleted to fewer than 50. The USFWS and the National Park Service have developed a draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are also aiding in the effort “to restore a reproducing population of approximately 200 bears through the capture and release of grizzly bears into the North Cascades ecosystem,” the USFWS said.

“The grizzly bears would most likely be captured from source populations in northwestern Montana and/or south-central British Columbia. Grizzly bears in these areas have the most similar diet to the sources available in the North Cascades,” Denise Schultz, Chief of Interpretation and Education with the National Park Service, said.

Listed as a threatened species in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, grizzlies survive today in only five areas: the Yellowstone ecosystem, the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, the Selkirk ecosystem and the Northern Cascades ecosystem, the USFWS said. In 2013, the service acknowledged that the population of North Cascades grizzlies warranted an upgrade to endangered species status, but that further action has been stalled by other listing priorities.

The bears have a low reproductive rate and their small populations are isolated. “Recovering a sustainable population will likely require active restoration in the U.S. portion of the ecosystem as well as strong cooperative efforts to sustain connectivity with Canada. If left to recover without additional human intervention, grizzly bears could disappear because individual bears are increasingly isolated and have limited opportunity to breed,” Schultz said.

The Northern Cascades ecosystem is in north-central Washington State and extends up into central British Columbia. The U.S. portion, about 9,800 square miles, is home to fewer than 20 grizzlies, and the B.C. portion, about 3,800 square miles, may have up to 30. The USFWS noted that, due to the difficulty of surveying the bears in such rugged country, some of those bears might have “duel citizenship.”

Of the U.S. segment, 97 percent of the land in this ecosystem is public land, including North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, among others.

One issue still to be ironed out is a conflict with Washington state law that says that grizzles shall not be transplanted or introduced into the state. When asked how this law would affect the planned introduction of bears, Schultz said, “This is still a draft plan, so that hasn’t been determined. We are working closely with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as a part of the EIS process.”

Historically, grizzlies were estimated to number around 50,000 in the western United States. As settlers moved in, the bears were shot, poisoned and trapped, and their numbers plummeted. The remaining five isolated populations in the lower 48 states have no more than 1,800 bears total, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation group, one of the USFWS’s most frequent petitioners and complainants on behalf of imperiled species.

“We’re happy to see the agencies taking a step in the right direction to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades,” Andrea Santarsiere, a CBD senior attorney, said. “By bringing bears back to this great, wild place, we right a historic wrong and help restore a beautiful landscape to its former glory.”

The draft restoration plan/ environmental impact statement contains four alternatives, and the agencies are requesting public input before publishing the final version. A series of eight open houses and two webinars regarding the alternatives have been scheduled.

“The return of a self-sustaining population of grizzly bears to the North Cascades would bode well for the ecosystem; an ecosystem capable of supporting grizzly bears – complete with healthy vegetation and prey populations, and secure, remote habitat – is also capable of supporting the other species that call the ecosystem home,” Schultz said.

Comments can also be submitted online or by mail through March 14.