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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Feds release North Cascades grizzly bear analysis; decision to come next month

A grizzly bear walks near Blacktail Pond in Yellowstone National Park in this 2017 photo.  (NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

The federal government announced on Thursday it wants to release up to seven grizzly bears each year into Washington’s North Cascades. The reintroduction effort would stop when the base population reaches 25 bears.

Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service on Thursday released their final analysis of options for bringing the bruins back to the Cascades. The bears would be part of an “experimental” population, which would give wildlife officials more options for killing or relocating bears that have run-ins with people and livestock.

The agencies were careful to say that the document released Thursday doesn’t represent a final decision. Federal regulations state that a final decision can’t be released until 30 days after the final environmental analysis is released.

Still, Thursday’s announcement represents a major milestone in the push to bring grizzlies back to the mountains between Snoqualmie Pass and the Canada border, where there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of the large omnivores in more than two decades.

Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear, a coalition of organizations that includes tribes and conservation groups, celebrated the moment in a news release.

Snoqualmie Indian Tribe Tribal Chairman Robert M. de los Angeles said in the release that the tribe is excited “to know that this hard-fought effort to bring home grizzlies is so close to becoming a reality.

“This is a critical moment in history, with governments, organizations, and individuals working together to welcome grizzlies back after human action removed them from their home,” de los Angeles said.

Opponents of reintroduction have raised concerns that reintroduced bears could pose a threat to humans and livestock. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, among the most vocal critics of the plan, said in an emailed statement Thursday that the final analysis shows “the Biden Administration is more intent on pushing policies about Central Washingtonians than for them.”

“The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service held public comment sessions in my district where the overwhelming majority of voices, which I heard firsthand, were adamantly opposed to the introduction of grizzly bears,” Newhouse said. “Their voices have been shut out of this entire process.”

Grizzly bears have a long history in the North Cascades, dating back thousands of years. Nationwide, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there were as many as 50,000 grizzlies spread across 18 Western states before 1800.

White settlers viewed the bears as threats, however, and killed most through hunting, trapping and even government-sponsored eradication efforts.

Grizzly numbers had dwindled into the hundreds in the Lower 48 when the bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.

Conservation efforts have brought those numbers up, and there are now roughly 2,000 of the bruins in the Lower 48. Most of those bears are in and around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, with two smaller populations in far northwest Montana, North Idaho and northeast Washington.

Yet in the North Cascades recovery zone, an area covering about 9,800 square miles that includes the North Cascades National Park Complex, the Fish and Wildlife Service considers grizzlies “functionally extirpated.”

The last confirmed grizzly sighting in the U.S. portion of the range came in 1996. On the British Columbia side of the border, there has been just one confirmed grizzly sighting in the range in the past 10 years.

Wayne Kasworm, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly recovery program, said the population did so poorly because so few bears were left after decades of killing, leaving the range without enough bears to reproduce and sustain a viable population.

“They largely disappeared because we killed them,” Kasworm said.

Natural recolonization of the range is almost impossible for the bears, said Graham Taylor, a program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. He said the bear population on the other side of the Canadian border is small and critically endangered, and that the only populations large enough to support restoring the bears are too far away for natural migration.

That makes a reintroduction program the best shot at bringing grizzlies back. This is the second time in the past decade that the two federal agencies have looked at reintroduction. A previous effort began under the Obama administration in 2015 but was scuttled in 2020 under the Trump Administration.

In 2022, the agencies revived the process. Drafts of the environmental analysis and a rule designating the population as experimental were released for public comment last fall. More than 12,000 comments were received by the end of the comment period in November.

If the plan goes forward, officials would capture grizzlies in areas where they are abundant and release between three and seven per year.

Bears between two and five years old that have not reproduced and have no history of conflict with humans would be selected for the reintroduction, according to the environmental analysis. The releases would continue over several years until a base population of 25 bears is established.

The recovery goal for the North Cascades is a population of 200 bears. Reaching that level could take 60 to 100 years, according to the environmental analysis, because grizzlies are among the slowest reproducing mammals in the world. Kasworm said female grizzlies typically begin reproducing at six years old, and they usually have litters of two cubs every three years.

The environmental analysis identifies three areas where releases could take place – the north and south units of North Cascades National Park and the western Pasayten Wilderness.

Should those bears travel farther out, the experimental designation gives wildlife managers greater leeway in dealing with conflicts that arise. The farther the bears wander from the core of the recovery zone, the more options managers would have for killing or relocating problem bears.

Graham Taylor, a program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said Thursday that the experimental designation is key for the reintroduction.

“It really cuts a lot of the red tape bureaucracy out of it while kind of protecting the species and recovering it,” Taylor said.

He added that the North Cascades has plenty of habitat and food for grizzlies, and that the bears just need an opportunity to live there.

“It’s really just about giving them a chance, bringing a few back and letting them do their thing,” Taylor said.