The federal government has drafted plans to bring grizzly bears back to Washington state’s North Cascades, the next step toward reintroducing the threatened species to a region where it was eliminated by hunters decades ago.
Grizzlies once played a key role in north-central Washington’s vast expanse of forest, mountains and valleys. Now the North Cascades is one of the last places left in the Lower 48 states where grizzly bears would be able to thrive – and U.S. agencies are evaluating whether to start a population there that could grow to 200 bears within a century.
Bringing them back would be the culmination of a decades-long effort to restore grizzly bears to the ecosystem, one of six spots in the country where federal biologists have aimed to recover decimated populations.
“We’ve come further now than we ever have before,” said Chris Servheen, who was U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator from 1981 to 2016 and is retired. “We have to finish.”
The return of the bears would be a major step in the species’ conservation and would benefit the ecosystem.
It would also hold deep significance for Native American tribes, for which grizzlies have cultural importance. Tribes and conservation groups say that bears belong on the land. Grizzly bears would be moved from well-populated areas, such as the Yellowstone region, to the North Cascades each summer until the population became big enough to sustain itself.
The years-long effort has faced hurdles. The agencies’ last attempt ended in 2020 when the Donald Trump administration scrapped the effort. A Republican congressman has mounted opposition to the latest plan while federal biologists hope their new proposal can win over local and political opponents who have raised objections.
“It’s a pretty divisive issue,” said Lisa Janicki, a commissioner in Skagit County, one of the red-leaning rural areas on the edge of the ecosystem where some business owners and landowners have had concerns about the bears’ possible effect on agriculture, timber and farming.
This time around, the government has proposed a pathway that would allow federal agencies more flexibility in relocating, capturing and dealing with bears if they strayed off federal land or caused problems – a bid to alleviate safety concerns and respond to public feedback that the agencies received last time.
For instance, if a grizzly wandered into a neighborhood, government specialists would have more leeway to deter or relocate it, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Andrew LaValle said. To give agencies that leeway, the bears would be designated as an experimental population with a special set of rules.
That option and two others – bringing bears in without the extra flexibility or not introducing any bears – are laid out in the draft plan and environmental impact statement released last month by the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, alongside the proposed rule to designate the bears as an experimental population.
The North Cascades ecosystem – a largely undeveloped 6.1 million acres that holds wild animals, rainforests, glaciers and meadows – was home to grizzly bears for centuries until hunters decimated them in the 19th and 20th centuries, when thousands of hides were shipped from area trading posts.
By the time grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, few remained in the North Cascades, Servheen said. The last one was spotted in 1996.
Work began in the 1980s to examine their recovery. Since the 1990s, the park and wildlife services have managed the North Cascades land as if grizzly bears live there.
“It’s been 30 years that we’ve protected it and been waiting, but they haven’t been able to get here,” North Cascades National Park wildlife biologist Jason Ransom said in a prerecorded National Park Service presentation.
Under either reintroduction option in the draft plan, the federal government would bring 3 to 7 grizzly bears to the North Cascades each year for 5 to 10 years, working to establish a population of 25 grizzlies. The bears reproduce slowly, so it would take 60 to 100 years before the North Cascades would have 200 bears.
The plan had drawn more than 2,200 comments by last week, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Andrew LaValle said, and agency officials will meet with Washingtonians at public meetings this month and next. The agencies are collecting public feedback on the draft plan and the proposed rule until Nov. 13 and will make a final decision in the spring.
Creating the special rule that would make grizzlies an experimental population is the agencies’ preferred route. Conservation groups have praised that option as a compromise.
“It feels like there might be light at the end of the tunnel for grizzly bears in the North Cascades,” said Graham Taylor, Northwest program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association. “But at the same time, it’s still just the very beginning of something.”
Scott Schuyler, a policy representative for the Upper Skagit tribe, said he would support making the bears an experimental population “if it ultimately achieves the end” goal of reintroducing grizzlies. “We’re hopeful that things will proceed,” he said.
“We feel this inherent hereditary need to protect the creatures in the environment and speak for them, and in particular the ones that have been lost,” Schuyler said.
He noted that his people once coexisted with grizzlies and, like the bears, were threatened with removal by settlers. “The grizzly bear’s survival is, in a sense, the survival of our culture, our history.”
For those worried about grizzlies coming onto locals’ property, objections remained. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents part of central Washington, recently introduced legislation seeking to withdraw the proposed plan and rule.
“Central Washingtonians have consistently voiced their concerns and opposition,” Newhouse said in an Oct. 11 statement on the platform X, “yet unelected bureaucrats … continue to try to force these predators upon our communities.”
Newhouse’s office didn’t answer questions from The Washington Post. In addition to calling on the agencies to withdraw the proposals, he asked them to extend the public comment period and said they were ignoring residents, who “do not want grizzlies placed into our backyards,” he wrote on X.
Federal biologists don’t expect conflicts between bears and humans to be common, but grizzlies could stray onto private property and come into contact with livestock or people.
The region is already home to animals such as black bears and wolves, and officials noted that people in many parts of the country take routine steps to protect against grizzly bears, such as carrying pepper spray or securing food when hiking or camping.
Some indicated that the new proposal could change minds. Janicki, the Skagit County commissioner, recalled “significant and strong opposition” in 2017 from people in her rural county worried about whether the bears would leave federal land. Though she is concerned for small farmers, she said the experimental-population rule has changed her stance.
The proposal “is a great compromise position,” she said last month. “If we can get [the] experimental population established, then hopefully we can coexist with bringing back bears into this area.”