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

Cabinet Mountains grizzly work helped shape North Cascades proposal

In the late 1980s, grizzly bears in the Cabinet Mountains were in trouble.

The range southwest of Libby, Montana, had only six or so bears left, and wildlife managers were concerned the population could go extinct.

They came up with a solution: Take grizzlies from another ecosystem and bring them to the Cabinets.

Between 1990 and 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly recovery program moved four female bears from British Columbia into the range. They radio -collared them to track their movements, and they waited.

Three of those bears stayed in the range for more than a year, figuring out life in their new home. More than a decade after the transplants, genetic data showed at least one of them had reproduced – evidence that relocating bears from one ecosystem to another could work, and that they may have found a way to keep grizzlies in the Cabinets.

After that data showed the program could work, the Fish and Wildlife Service began moving more bears into the range. To date, 22 bears have been moved into the Cabinet Mountains.

Not all of the bears lived. Some of them left. But plenty of them stayed, and some of them had cubs.

Wayne Kasworm, the grizzly recovery biologist who has overseen the program, said three generations of cubs can be linked to the transplanted bears. The range’s population is estimated at between 30 and 35 bears – about five times what Kasworm believes it was at the time of the first transplant in 1990.

The program of moving bears into the range has been credited with saving the population from extinction.

It’s also the most significant effort the Fish and Wildlife Service has made in moving bears between ecosystems, and it has helped shape the federal government’s latest plans for reviving a defunct grizzly population.

Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service finalized a proposal for establishing a population of 25 grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades, a range where the species has not been seen since 1996. The goal is to create a population that could expand to 200 bears in 60 to 100 years.

The effort is different from the Cabinet Mountains augmentation program in several key ways. For one thing, grizzlies are considered functionally extinct in the North Cascades, which means officials will have to move more bears into the range over a shorter period of time to establish a population.

For another, the North Cascades provide more room for grizzlies to roam – some 9,800 square miles of backcountry in the North Cascades National Park complex where they can make a living.

But getting the bears into the range will rely on methods that have been used for years in the Cabinet Mountains. The Cascades reintroduction will draw on that history, and the things officials learned about deciding which bears to move.

“There’s years of experience that we can use in this North Cascades reintroduction effort,” said Chris Servheen, who oversaw grizzly bear recovery efforts for 35 years for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’re hardly starting at square one.”


The Cabinet bears are officially part of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem Recovery Zone, one of six zones in the Lower 48 states where officials have been working to restore grizzly bears, which have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1975.

Grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem exist in two distinct populations split by U.S. Highway 2 and the Kootenay River – one north of the river in the Yaak area, and one in the Cabinet Mountains south of the river. Combined, officials believe there are 65 to 70 bears in the two ranges today.

In 1988, the situation was far more dire in the Cabinets. The official estimate at that time was 15 bears in the Cabinets. But Kasworm, who led the augmentation effort, said that was almost certainly an overestimate.

“Knowing what I know today, I think we were probably down to half a dozen bears in the Cabinets,” Kasworm said.

The population didn’t have enough female bears, and no new bears were migrating in naturally.

Servheen, who was Kasworm’s boss at the time, said that made it hard to see how the population could grow, even if no bears died.

“The ability to increase the population was very, very difficult,” Servheen said. “The idea of augmenting that population was the way to jump-start recovery and get the population going.”

At the same time, grizzlies were considered all but absent from both the North Cascades and Bitterroot ecosystems, two of the other zones where officials are charged with restoring the bears.

Boosting an existing population was an easier step than committing to a reintroduction, however. In the Cabinets, they could see how moving bears could work with a known population before trying to start one from scratch.

“Here was an opportunity to test the technique on a much smaller scale,” Kasworm said.

After discussions with a local citizens committee, they proposed the pilot project with the four Canadian bears.

When genetic testing in the early 2000s showed the concept had worked, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to keep moving bears. Through negotiations with the local citizens committee, they agreed to move no more than two bears per year, and to only move bears with no history of human conflict.

A 2022 report on the population shows the agency moved 18 bears into the range from 2005 to 2019, bringing the total to 22.

Each of those bears was chosen carefully. They were caught in the backcountry by researchers during their normal summer work to monitor the population that’s in and around Glacier National Park.

Researchers looked at a few key factors to identify candidates for augmentation. If the bear met the criteria, it would be hauled to Libby and released deep in Cabinets within about 24 hours.

Early on, the bears selected for the Cabinets were subadult females – animals 2 to 5 years old with plenty of breeding time left. When they started moving more bears in the mid-2000s, males were added to the mix to help boost genetic diversity.

Most of the bears they moved were between 2 and 4 years old. Kasworm said younger bears are generally more likely to stay where they’re put, and have a better chance at adapting to their new environment.

His team did move one 10-year-old bear into the range in 2009. The bear ended up leaving, wandering back to the area where it was captured near the North Fork of the Flathead River.

They also looked for bears that had no history of run-ins with people. Ear tags or markings on the bear would help the trappers learn its history, which usually kept them from considering the bear a candid ate for transplant.

In one instance, Kasworm recalled having a candidate bear hauled to their office in Libby only to be returned after officials there found a microchip in the animal. Records linked to the chip showed the bear had a prior human conflict, so they sent it back.

In general, the screening process worked well. Human-grizzly conflicts happen in the Cabinets, but in the past 34 years, none of the bears that was transplanted have been found to have caused problems.

Kasworm said during a grizzly management meeting this week that one bear was shot by a man who thought it had been in his garbage, but that testing later showed he was wrong. The man was prosecuted.

Perhaps more important, at least five of the transplanted grizzlies have had cubs, and now some of their cubs have had cubs. That’s what’s helped the population grow.

“The bears that are in there now are almost all offspring related to the bears that were put in there for augmentation,” Servheen said. “If we hadn’t put the bears in there for augmentation, they’d be extinct from the Cabinet Mountains.”

Starting from zero

Kasworm, who is also involved in the North Cascades effort, said the reintroduction in Washington is a different beast than the Cabinets.

Biologists know there’s plenty of habitat in the Cascades, and they believe there’s plenty of food. The range is big, and bears would have to travel far to get into run-ins with people.

But because there’s no existing population, they’ll have to bring in more bears over a shorter period of time and both male and female bears to give them a chance to reproduce.

“We’re starting in the Cascades at pretty much zero,” Kasworm said.

The plans call for releasing between three and seven bears in the range over the next several years. Once bears are in the range, the population will be considered “experimental,” a legal designation that gives wildlife managers more flexibility in deciding whether to kill or move bears that attack livestock or have other run-ins with people.

Federal officials have not laid out a timeline for bringing in the bears. Logistics still need to be figured out. Agreements need to be in place for moving them, and officials must purchase supplies like radio collars for the program, according to Andrew Lavalle, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman.

The program also may draw a legal challenge from groups that oppose reintroducing the bears. Opponents have argued that a new population of grizzlies would pose threats to public safety and agriculture.

Barring that, when officials are ready to move bears into the range, they’ll rely on the process honed in western Montana to help them find the right bears.

“It’s kind of the approach that we’re looking at,” Kasworm said.

They’ll be looking for bears in the same age range that they did for the Cabinets. They’ll also be looking for bears that live in the backcountry, and that haven’t caused problems with people or livestock.

Servheen said the Cabinet Mountains augmentation program represents “the best experience we have of moving nonconflict bears,” and that it showed that those bears can continue staying clear of people even after they’ve been moved.

“There were no conflicts with those bears,” he said. “They didn’t get into trouble … It was a positive experience.”

The bears headed for the North Cascades would be hauled a lot farther than they have been for the Cabinet augmentations.

Documents detailing the Cascades plans indicate that transplant bears would come from either British Columbia or the ecosystems in and around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.

And, once they’re within striking distance, the final leg of the bear’s trip into the backcountry likely would take place via helicopter.

Servheen, who is now president of the board of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said it’s one of only a few places where grizzlies can be restored.

“If you look at the Cascades, you’ve got a huge block of wild country,” Servheen said. “Put bears in the center of that and they have a lot of potential to find food.”