Grizzly bears once thrived in these wilderness areas.  The United States could bring them back.

Grizzly bears once thrived in these wilderness areas. The United States could bring them back.


In the wilderness of Washington state’s North Cascades — a vast expanse of glacier-capped peaks, rugged valleys, and ancient forests — grizzly bears once thrived.

It has been more than 25 years since we were definitely spotted there, according to the National Park Service. But that could change with a new federal process, which begins Tuesday, that will consider whether to reintroduce grizzly bears to the 9,800-square-mile ecosystem.

The effort comes two years after the Trump administration ended a previous attempt to bring the endangered species back to the Cascades, a volte-face that scuttled half a decade of federal planning.

“This is an opportunity to make progress for wild places, to restore the last missing piece of the North Cascades,” said Graham Taylor, Northwest program manager for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “We were so close last time. I hope we can really get there this time.

Ranchers and farmers have historically opposed the reintroduction of the bear, whose population was devastated by hunters in the 19th and 20th centuries, while conservationists say restoring the grizzly bear to the state of Washington is long overdue. The bear is a key part of the ecosystem and is culturally important to Indigenous peoples – and the North Cascades offers some of the best grizzly bear habitat in the contiguous United States, according to the National Park Service.

An online public meeting Tuesday will mark an “entirely new” assessment by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will consider options for bringing grizzly bears to the area, the agencies said in a statement Thursday.

From 2020: Conservation groups upset over North Cascades grizzly bear decision

It’s an effort with a decades-long history. The North Cascades is one of six ecosystems designated for grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48, but it has been nearly 30 years since these recovery areas were established. While other areas in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have grizzly bear populations, lands in Washington state have no known bear populations, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This is a first step towards restoring ecosystem balance and restoring some of the natural and cultural heritage of the Pacific Northwest,” said National Park Superintendent Don Striker. of North Cascades, in the release.

The restoration planning process was underway in 2020 when the Trump administration’s Interior Department shut it down, citing local opposition led by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), who said that farmers, ranchers and others did not want grizzly bears in the area.

“People who live and work in north-central Washington have made it clear that they do not want grizzly bears reintroduced to the North Cascades,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement to the US. time, pledging to continue improving grizzly bear populations in other parts of the country.

At the time, voters said they feared the bears would attack their livestock or jeopardize their safety, according to local news reports. At a 2019 meeting with Newhouse, about 450 people showed up, many to voice complaints, Northwest Public Broadcasting reported.

Newhouse, whose office did not immediately respond to a Washington Post request for comment on Saturday, tweeted criticism of the government’s decision to reopen the issue on Thursday, urging voters to submit comments to the National Park Service to help “put this erroneous proposition to rest, once and for all.

“The introduction of grizzly bears to the North Cascades would have a direct and negative impact on the people and communities I represent,” he wrote. “It’s disappointing that our voices are being ignored again.”

The federal process will include four online video meetings over the next three weeks, all open to the public. Members of the public can submit comments until December 14.

Stretching across a wide swath of north-central Washington state, the North Cascades ecosystem includes alpine meadows and rugged mountains, fir forests and diverse habitats, and continues into Canada, according to the North Cascades Institute. Covering the ancestral homeland of several indigenous tribes and nations, it includes the North Cascades National Park, national forests and wilderness areas.

The North Cascades are good for bears for many reasons, including an abundant supply of blueberries, a highly diverse ecosystem and very few roads, especially in the heart of the region, conservationists said. Grizzlies are “nature’s gardeners,” spreading nutrients and seeds and helping the ecosystem, said Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest field representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.

“If you protect their well-being, then ecosystem well-being tends to go with them,” Callaghy said.

Because there are no grizzly bear populations close enough for bears to migrate, bears will have to be brought in from other parts of the country. The assessment process, known as an Environmental Impact Assessment, will examine ways to achieve this.

The federal government will also consider a designation that would give local land managers more flexibility to deal with bears that may come into contact with humans. Fans hope that might make opponents more comfortable this time around.

“It’s a big deal because it really reduces what some would call the burden of recovering endangered species,” Taylor said. “It’s 100% a response to local concerns and questions about how this will work. … It’s a very clear sign that the government is listening to local people.

Conservationists say encounters between grizzly bears and humans are rare in areas where bears currently live.

“Our people and the grizzly bear coexisted here for 10,000 years before the first Europeans arrived in this area,” said Scott Schuyler, a political representative for the Upper Skagit tribe. “When you have a healthy ecosystem in place, the bear will be there, should be there, just like all other creatures. Its role is very important.

If the bears were reintroduced, the plan could bring in five to 10 bears each year, with the hope of reaching a population of 25 – a “tiny” number for the size of the ecosystem, said Joe Scott, who leads the grizzly bear work within the organization. Northwest Conservation.

The process would be slow, in part because grizzly bears do not reproduce quickly. It would then probably take about a century to reach a population of 200 bears or more. In the greater Yellowstone area, about 728 grizzly bears lived in 2019, according to the National Park Service.

“We hope we get to the point where federal managers and wildlife biologists can start moving bears here. It’s not an easy process,” Scott said. “We would love it if we had a reasonable expectation of having 200 bears there in 50, 60, 80 years.”

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