SEATTLE – Grizzly bears once roamed the rugged landscape of the North Cascades in Washington state but few have been sighted in recent decades.
Federal officials want to restore the population and on Thursday released a draft plan with four options, ranging from taking no action to varying efforts to capture bears from other locations and transplant them to 9,800 square miles of mostly public land surrounding North Cascades National Park.
Two of the alternatives envision a goal of about 200 bears within 60 to 100 years with smaller initial releases, while a third expedited option expects to restore 200 animals in 25 years.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not pick a preferred alternative. Instead they’re seeking input over the next several weeks on what steps they should take to restore grizzly bears to their natural range.
The draft plan comes as the federal government is deciding whether to lift protections for more than 700 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. Officials had planned to finalize by the end of 2016 a proposal to turn management of grizzlies over to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming officials and allow limited hunting, but a deluge of opposition is tying up a decision.
In Washington state, the grizzly plan has stoked intense debate as federal officials sought input in 2015 as it developed the draft environmental impact statement released Thursday.
Supporters say the shy, massive creatures – a symbol of true wilderness – should be brought back. They say the population won’t recover without help and their return would increase the biodiversity of the ecosystem.
“Returning this magnificent animal to the North Cascades is a rare opportunity to restore our natural heritage,” said Joe Scott of the nonprofit Conservation Northwest, one of several groups that cheered the plan’s release. He noted that groups need to work together so that the plan works for everyone.
Others say the animals should recover naturally, while some worry about potential increased dangers to recreationists and livestock and opposed the move over potential impacts to communities, ranchers, farmers and others.
Some state lawmakers have opposed moving grizzly bears into Washington, telling the federal agencies in 2015 that the idea contradicts state law stating the bears “shall not be transplanted or introduced into the state.”
Federal officials note that grizzly bears tend to avoid areas of human activity, and the animals would be relocated in remote areas, away from grazing allotments. They’ll be radio-collared and monitored. Grizzly bears would likely come from areas in northwestern Montana or south-central British Columbia.
The bears are at risk of local extinction, and recovering them would enhance the population’s survival, restore the animal as part of the area’s cultural heritage and provide people the chance to experience the animals in their native habitat, federal officials say.
Without intervention, the animals could disappear. Individual bears are increasingly isolated and have limited opportunity to breed, the agencies said.
An estimated 50,000 Grizzlies once roamed much of North America. Most were killed off by hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries and they now occupy only about 2 percent of their original range across the Lower 48 states.
They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. In the North Cascades, the population is estimated to be fewer than 20 animals, according to Fish and Wildlife Service.
The most recent confirmed sighting of a bear was in 1996 in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades ecosystem. A bear was confirmed in British Columbia within 20 miles of the U.S. within the last five years.
The North Cascades ecosystem offers some of the best habitat to recover the animals, and a federal 1997 plan designated the area as one of five grizzly bear recovery zones. The others are in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The 1997 plan called for an environmental review to evaluate a range of alternatives for recovering the North Cascades grizzly population but no funds were allocated until 2014. The environmental impact statement is expected to be finalized this fall.
Eight public meetings are scheduled in February. The public can weigh in through March 14.
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