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Grizzly bears may return to North Cascades after all

Under the Biden administration’s new proposed plans, grizzly bears may make a comeback to Washington state’s North Cascades.

(CN) — The Biden administration submitted a notice of intent to prepare Washington state’s North Cascades ecosystem for grizzly bear restoration. According to the notice submitted Thursday, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife are jointly preparing an environmental impact statement for the North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan to determine how to restore the species to its historical range.

“Action is needed to restore grizzly bears to the NCE because they are functionally extirpated from the ecosystem, and restoration there will contribute to overall grizzly bear recovery,” the agencies wrote in the notice, later adding they hope to one day remove grizzly bears from the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife.

The North Cascades run along the Canadian border with the northern part of Washington state, a vast stretch of wild land boasting rocky peaks that rise as high as 10,000 feet. Estimates from 2020 put the population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades at just 10 and the region represents prime habitat for the bear, according to the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.

Under the proposed action, the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife would capture up to 25 bears from British Columbia or the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in Northwestern Montana and release them into the North Cascades over five to ten years. According to the notice, the agencies expect the proposed action to result in a population of 200 grizzlies within 60 to 100 years.

Action will not happen overnight, though, as the agencies have two years to decide whether to act. The agencies plan to make an environmental assessment available to the public by summer 2023 and reach a final assessment by spring of 2024.

“I’m extremely encouraged to see federal officials moving forward with a plan to restore grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades,” said Andrea Zaccardi, carnivore conservation legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “This overturns the Trump administration’s rash termination of these plans, which forced us to launch a legal challenge. Without a helping hand, grizzly bears are likely to disappear from the Pacific Northwest. This new action by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service is a step in the right direction to put grizzly bears back on the path to recovery.”

As noted by Zaccardi, the government initially began an evaluative process for restoring grizzly bears under the National environmental Policy Act in 2015. However, the Trump administration dissolved such plans, prompting the Center to sue in 2020. Views on the reintroduction plan were mixed, with opponents including the Sauk-Suittle Indian Tribe, whose leadership expressed concerns about safety and potential damage to local salmon runs. The government says public comments from previous restoration efforts will inform the new environmental assessment and development of alternative proposals.

“This is a first step toward bringing balance back to the ecosystem and restoring a piece of the Pacific Northwest’s natural and cultural heritage,” said superintendent Don Striker of North Cascades National Park in a statement. “With the public’s help we will evaluate a list of options to determine the best path forward.”

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