Thousands of people have weighed in on the federal government’s latest proposal to bring grizzly bears back to the North Cascades.
The two draft documents that lay out a plan to establish an “experimental” grizzly population in the U.S. portion of the Cascades garnered more than 12,000 public comments each before the deadline late Monday, according to Andrew Lavalle, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The proposal, released by USFWS and the National Park Service in September, calls for establishing a base population of 25 bears through small releases over five to 10 years. Once a population is established, the agency expects the number would reach 200 bears over the next 60 to 100 years.
The close of the comment period marks a sort of halfway point for the environmental analysis process. Officials will now review the comments. Lavalle said the agency hopes to have a final plan and rule ready by the end of next spring.
It’s the second time in the past decade that federal officials have considered returning grizzlies to the North Cascades, an area where the threatened species has not been found in more than two decades.
The previous effort began under the Obama Administration in 2015, but was dropped under the Trump Administration in 2020.
The proposal released this fall is paired with a rule that would designate the population as “experimental,” which would give state and federal officials greater leeway in dealing with bears that have run-ins with humans or livestock. It gives them additional criteria for killing problem bears and offers options like preemptively relocating bears that could cause conflict.
Lavalle said it provides “a larger toolbox that can be used by more people in more places.”
If the reintroduction plan is approved, officials would release up to seven bears a year until the population reaches a base level of 25. The bears would be released within the North Cascades Recovery Zone, which stretches from Snoqualmie Pass north to the Canadian border.
Most of the recovery zone consists of public land, according to USFWS’ environmental analysis. About 7% of it is private land.
Conservationists and grizzly advocates cheered the proposal. After it was announced, the Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear – a coalition of conservation groups – issued a news release lauding the value of returning the species to the ecosystem.
Joe Scott, international programs director for Conservation Northwest, said in the release that the grizzly bear has “immeasurable ecological and cultural value for our ecosystems and Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and should be restored in its traditional home.”
Others have raised concerns that a new population of grizzlies poses a threat to humans and livestock. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, has introduced legislation in Congress seeking to block the reintroduction. Newhouse has criticized the plan as “dangerous” and a threat to public safety and agricultural producers.
Some also have concerns about what the reintroduction will mean for the federal agency’s management of bears elsewhere.
Since the bears were listed in 1975, grizzly bear populations have increased, numbering around 2,000 across four of the six designated recovery zones, but none of the populations has been delisted.
Most of the bears are in and around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, but some smaller populations exist in the Cabinet and Yaak mountains of northwest Montana and the Selkirk Mountains in North Idaho and Northeast Washington.
The Kalispel Reservation is at the edge of the grizzly recovery area for the Selkirks, where there are roughly 90 to 100 bears spread across about 2,500 square miles.
Ray Entz, director of wildlife and terrestrial resources for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, said Tuesday that the tribe opposes reintroducing the bears now because it wants USFWS to first fully recover existing bear populations, like the one in their backyard.
“It’s not that we’re against eventual effort in the North Cascades,” Entz said. “Just not now.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest. The error has been fixed.