Threatened grizzly bears could roam again in the wildest reaches of Washington state.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday they have restarted the on-again, off-again process to reintroduce grizzlies to North Cascades National Park.
“This is a first step toward bringing balance back to the ecosystem and restoring a piece of the Pacific Northwest’s natural and cultural heritage,” North Cascades Superintendent Don Striker said in a news release. “With the public’s help we will evaluate a list of options to determine the best path forward.”
Grizzly reintroduction in the North Cascades became a hot issue in the Northwest and during the Trump administration, when restoration plans were subject to changing political whims.
Federal agencies started a public planning process to reintroduce the bears in 2015, but it was suspended in 2017 by Ryan Zinke, then the secretary of the interior during the Trump administration. In 2019, Zinke reversed course and reopened a new public comment period. A year later, the new interior secretary, David Bernhardt, shuttered the process once again, with little explanation.
The Center for Biological Diversity in 2020 sued over the Trump administration’s halt to the federal grizzly restoration effort. The lawsuit continues.
Grizzlies haven’t been spotted with certainty in the North Cascades since 1996, the National Park Service said in a news release. Hunters and government agents killed thousands of bears, once found throughout the region, for fur and to remove them from the region entirely, the Center for Biological Diversity said in court filings.
“It wasn’t a lack of habitat. It wasn’t a lack of food or other resources. People killed them,” said Jason Ransom, who leads the wildlife program at North Cascades National Park. “The North Cascades is one of the largest wilderness areas in the Lower 48. There’s lots of real estate for bears to occupy.”
But in the past 10 years, there have been four confirmed grizzly sightings in the North Cascades, all across the Canadian border, the court filings say.
Ransom said that a few bears might be wandering the woods but that there aren’t enough to be considered a viable population and that there’s little chance bears from other regions could travel far enough to jump-start populations.
“The population is functionally extirpated, which means there’s not enough reproduction going on for there to be any long-term grizzly population on both sides of the border,” Ransom said.
The North Cascades is one of six areas where the federal government is looking to restore the grizzlies.
The federal agencies will evaluate several options to restore bear populations as part of an environmental impact statement process.
The agency outlined a preliminary plan to create an “experimental population” by adding three to seven captured grizzly bears to the North Cascades for five to 10 years, with a goal of building an initial population up to about 25 bears. The bears would be captured and transported from interior British Columbia or Northwest Montana, according to a notice about the proposal.
After that, the agencies would manage the bear population, expecting the bears’ population to grow to about 200 in another 60 to 100 years.
Ransom said restoring grizzlies would enhance biodiversity and could make the ecosystem more resilient to future changes.
The agencies’ proposal surprised the group suing over the 2020 halt.
“We had no idea this announcement today was going to be made,” said Andrea Zaccardi, the carnivore conservation legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re pleasantly surprised they’re reconsidering augmenting the population. It does make for a very long road again to start from scratch, pretty much.”
Grizzlies have been a popular and divisive topic.
The previous federal efforts to restore bears in the North Cascades drew about 143,000 public comments combined, Ransom said.
Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents rural central and eastern Washington communities, has opposed restoring grizzly populations in the past and indicated he would do so again.
“My constituents and I have consistently opposed proposals to do so under multiple administrations because introducing an apex predator to the area would threaten the families, wildlife, and livestock of North Central Washington,” Newhouse said in a statement Thursday.
The National Park Service has scheduled several virtual meetings to discuss the proposal. A final decision could take years.