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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

North Cascade grizzly reintroduction plan headed to court

A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, during July 2011.  (Jim Urquhart)
By Rob Chaney The Missoulian

MISSOULA – An on-again/off-again plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades region of Washington will get a federal court review after the Interior Department abruptly canceled it last summer.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipworth and National Park Service Director Margaret Everson on Wednesday, alleging the Trump Administration officials illegally terminated the environmental impact statement that would have guided restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades Ecosystem.

Although it’s one of six long-standing recovery areas for grizzlies in the Lower 48 states, the North Cascades National Park and surrounding public lands may have only four or fewer bears residing there. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service documents have described them as “the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the United States today.”

Because of habitat loss and conflicts with ranchers and farmers over the past century, grizzly bears are classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. While the 95,000-square-mile North Cascades Ecosystem joins potential grizzly habitat across the Canadian border in British Columbia, those Canadian grizzly populations have also suffered drastic population declines.

Interior officials and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee started developing a plan to transplant grizzly bears into the North Cascades in 2015. President Donald Trump’s new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put the plan on hold shortly after taking office in 2017, but then ordered the EIS to continue in 2018.

Interior officials reopened a public comment period on the plan in 2019, and a year later, new Interior Secretary Bernhardt announced a decision to “discontinue the proposal to develop and implement a grizzly bear restoration plan for the North Cascades Ecosystem” and terminate the EIS work. Bernhardt’s announcement was praised by some Washington Congress members and local ranchers.

It was also challenged by a wide range of local wildlife advocates and conservation groups. The Center for Biological Diversity warned the Interior Department it intended to sue in July, and last week carried through on the challenge.

“The Trump administration’s purely political decision to ax this conservation program was a massive blow to the grizzly bear recovery program,” CBD attorney Andrea Zaccardi wrote in an email statement. “We’re hopeful that our lawsuit will put grizzly bears in the North Cascades back on the road to recovery.

“Grizzly bears once thrived in the North Cascades and they could again, but only if the feds do their job. Abandonment of efforts to restore bears to this area would ensure the local extinction of grizzlies in Washington. We’re not going to let that happen.”

FWS spokeswoman Dana Bivens said last Thursday that the agency had received the complaint and was reviewing it, but had not further comment.

About 2,000 grizzly bears inhabit the northern Rocky Mountains south of Canada, with most in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Before the agricultural settlement of the West, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed the West between Canada and Mexico. The grizzly was given threatened ESA status in 1975.