Federal officials released a draft plan this week for restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades.
Following two years of public process, the plan presents four options, ranging from taking no action to varying efforts of capturing bears from other locations and transplanting them to 9,800 square miles of mostly public land surrounding North Cascades National Park.
Grizzly bears once roamed that rugged area in Washington, but only a few have been confirmed in recent decades.
The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species in the contiguous U.S. in 1975. The species was listed as endangered by the state of Washington in 1980.
Two of the draft plan alternatives set goals of approximately 200 bears within 60 to 100 years, while a third expedited option expects to restore 200 animals in 25 years.
“The speed of the recovery is related to the number of bears captured elsewhere and brought in,” said Bob Everitt, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Northern Puget Sound Region manager.
The state agency has not yet commented on the federal recovery plan, but would not be able to support bringing in grizzly bears to speed up recovery, he said.
The Washington Legislature passed a law more than three decades ago that supports grizzly bear recovery but prohibits state agencies from importing bears from out of state.
The state officially supports letting bears come in naturally, he said.
“The state could not be involved in releasing grizzlies, but that would not preclude the federal agencies from doing it on national forests or national park land,” Everitt said.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not pick a preferred alternative at this stage. Instead they’re seeking input over the next several weeks on what steps they should take to restore grizzly bears to their natural range.
Release of the draft Environmental Impact Statement is the latest step for a public recovery process required by the Endangered Species Act. Work on the EIS officially began in 2015 after decades of urging by federal and local land managers, scientists, tribal nations and wildlife and environmental organizations.
The 60-day public comment period for the draft EIS will include eight public meetings held around the North Cascades region.
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, the grizzly plan has stoked intense debate as federal officials sought input in 2015 as it developed its draft environmental impact statement.
Supporters said the solitary, massive creatures – a symbol of wilderness – should be brought back, that the population won’t recover without help and their return would increase the biodiversity of the ecosystem.
Others said the animals should recovery naturally, while others worried about potential increased dangers to people and livestock and opposed the move over potential impacts to communities, ranchers, farmers and others.
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 North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, anchored by North Cascades National Park, was designated by federal scientists in 1997, when it was determined the region has sufficient quality habitat to support a sizable grizzly population. It is the only grizzly bear recovery area on the west coast of the contiguous U.S. The other four recovery zones are in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The North Cascades bears are at risk of local extinction, and recovering them would enhance the population’s survival, add natural balance to the wildlife in the ecoysystem, 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 North Cascades-region grizzlies 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.
In the North Cascades, the population is estimated to be fewer than 20 animals, according to Fish and Wildlife Service.
A grizzly sighting was confirmed in 1996 in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades ecosystem. A backpacker photographed a bear later confirmed as a grizzly in North Cascades National Park in 2010. A bear also was confirmed in British Columbia within 20 miles of the U.S.
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 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.
“In some of our most rugged national parks, we’ve celebrated incredible successes for wildlife over the past several years, and grizzly bear recovery is the next opportunity,” said Rob Smith, Northwest Region director for National Parks Conservation Association.
“In the Northwest, we’ve seen salmon populations rebound in Olympic National Park after the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams were removed. And just this winter, Pacific fishers were successfully reintroduced at Mount Rainier.”
Eight public meetings are scheduled across the state in February (6-8 p.m.). Those in Eastern Washington:
Cle Elum: Feb. 13 at the Putnam Centennial Center
Cashmere: Feb. 14 at the Riverside Center
Winthrop: Feb. 15 at the Red Barn
Omak: Feb. 16 at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds Annex
For those who cannot attend meetings, webinars are scheduled for Feb. 14 (11 a.m.-1 p.m.) and Feb. 26 (5-7 p.m.) Info: parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis.
The public can weigh in with written comments on the draft environmental impact statement through March 14.
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