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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Study confirms that grizzly bears long inhabited North Cascades

This October 2010 photo provided by Joe Sebille shows a grizzly bear in Washington state’s North Cascades. (JOE SEBILLE / COURTESY)

A National Parks Service report confirms that grizzly bears long inhabited the North Cascades.

The report, published in June, collects historic reports, sightings and archaeological grizzly data throughout the North Cascades ecosystem.

The National Parks Service decided to examine the historical record in an effort to show that there was a “historical population” of grizzly bears, said Kristin Rine, a biological technician at NPS and the lead author of the report.

Additionally, the report was conducted in an effort to analyze and compile all available historical information on grizzly bears, Rine said.

“I had really no idea what the prehistoric conditions were in this area relating to humans and grizzly bear populations and how they might have interacted,” Rine said.

Some have questioned whether or not grizzlies ever inhabited the North Cascades.

Beyond simply refuting those comments the report pulls together documentation of grizzlies in Washington.

“It’s just trying to synthesize the information together as part of the overall picture of grizzly bears here in the North Cascades,” said Jack Oelfke the natural and cultural resources chief for the North Cascades National Park. “It certainly doesn’t change the effort and desire to bring grizzly bears here.”

The report found 178 credible observations of grizzlies between 1859 and 2015. The report looked at fur trading records and in-person sightings. It also examined older accounts and archaeological evidence from Native American cultures in Washington.

According to Rine, from what she could tell, grizzly bears were not a preferred game animal for Native Americans.

“Compared to black bear at least they weren’t favorable,” she said. “The meat apparently wasn’t as favorable as black bear.”

And, despite a large Native American population in Washington, Rine said she found no evidence suggesting that the population negatively impacted the grizzly population.

“One analysis representing over 7,000 years of archeological data did not support subsistence-based, large-scale depletion of the region’s mammals and fish; rather, animal (including salmon) harvests were apparently stable and sustainable,” according to the NPS report.

However, the arrival of European settlers and the corresponding population explosion did damage the grizzly populations.

“Of all prehistoric and historic factors that have contributed to the current state of grizzly bears in the Pacific Northwest, and indeed across North America, none is perhaps more influential than simple human population growth,” the report states.

The report comes on the heels of the U.S. House of Representatives voting to bar the federal government from spending money to move grizzly bears into Washington’s North Cascades in the coming fiscal year.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside, inserted the amendment banning money for reintroduction into the House appropriations bill.

The fate of that bill is uncertain. The Senate has yet to pass an appropriations funding bill for the Interior Department, so the bear measures would have to make it into the final legislation Congress sends to President Donald Trump.

The NPS is moving forward with the reintroduction process after the effort was restarted by interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in March.

The NPS hopes to issue the final EIS by the end of September. Although plans vary to some extent, the three proposed reintroduction plans aim to restore a “a reproducing population of approximately 200 bears through the capture and release of grizzly bears.”

Oelfke said that if everything goes as planned, on-the-ground reintroduction work won’t start until 2019 or 2020.

“This country decided in the 1970s that we didn’t want species to disappear,” Oelfke said. “As a nation we have put value on putting species (back) on the landscape. This is part of that effort.”