A grizzly bear sow keeps watch over her cub along the Gibbon River in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., in April 2019. (Frank van Manen / U.S. Geological Survey)

A grizzly bear sow keeps watch over her cub along the Gibbon River in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., in April 2019. (Frank van Manen / U.S. Geological Survey)

Editorial: A welcome return of grizzlies to North Cascades

Plans to restore a small population of bears to the wilderness will help the ecosystem and its biodiversity.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Perhaps as soon as this year, the North Cascades could get some new neighbors, members of a family who haven’t been seen in the area for nearly 30 years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service last week announced their final analysis of plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades, a species whose last confirmed sighting was near Snohomish County’s Glacier Peak in 1996.

Grizzly bears once numbered an estimated 50,000 throughout the western United States, but were driven nearly to extinction by white settlers starting in the mid-1850s. Today, excluding Alaska, fewer than 2,000 grizzly bears remain in the West, chiefly in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Thirty-year odyssey: Beginning in 1993, the two agencies began planning for establishment of six grizzly bear recovery zones in those three states and Washington state’s North Cascades. About the same time as the last grizzly was seen in the state, the recovery plan for the North Cascades was announced and habitat studies began that were followed in more recent years by halts and restarts for the effort, in particular during the Trump administration, with the latest restart launched by the Biden administration in 2022.

Following lengthy environmental reviews and the collection and consideration of 12,000 public comments, the agencies released three final proposals for reintroduction in a 9,800 square mile area of the North Cascades, its national park and national forests in portions of Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Okanogan, Chelan and King counties.

Along with a no-action proposal, one of two other plans for reintroduction will be approved following a 30-day period after the proposals’ release. Both proposals would provide for the reintroduction of between three and seven grizzlies each year for five to 10 years, until an initial population of 25 bears is established, with the goal of allowing that population to grow over the next 60 to 100 years to about 200 bears.

The two proposals include differing recommendations for management of the bears, regarding the killing or relocation of bears to defend life and safety or for scientific research. The agencies’ preferred alternative would allow landowners to call on the federal government to remove bears seen as a threat to livestock, or for other issues.

Among those who have followed the 30-year North Cascades odyssey is Joe Scott, the international programs associate director for Conservation Northwest, focusing on grizzly bear restoration for the North Cascades and a small population of grizzlies in northeast Washington’s and Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains.

“Maybe we’re at the end of the tunnel here. I’m hoping,” Scott said in an interview this week.

By road or air: Once the plan is official, the first grizzlies could arrive in the North Cascades as early as this year, Scott said, once a final translocation plan is announced and the agencies have determined how they’re going to move the bears in, either from cages brought in by trucks or from helicopters.

Bears could be relocated to northern and southern areas of the North Cascades National Park or the western Pasayten Wilderness, likely from existing recovery zones in the Greater Yellowstone recovery zone in Wyoming or Montana’s Northern Continental Divide recovery zone.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been relocating bears into Montana’s Cabinet Yaak relocation zone near the Idaho border since the 1990s, which held fewer than 10 bears when its recovery program started. Its population has now grown to more than 30 grizzlies, Scott said. The agencies also have begun study of relocation into central Idaho’s Bitterroot recovery zone.

The proposal has drawn criticism throughout its years of study and consideration, including most recently the message delivered at a public hearing in November in Darrington where some at the meeting held signs reading “Hell no to grizzles.”

“I sometimes go hiking. I don’t want to come upon a bear,” one woman said at the hearing. “I don’t want to come upon a wolf. I just want to be in a peaceful place.”

Putting the population in perspective: “I’m never dismissive of those concerns,” Scott said. “But in this case it’s grossly exaggerated or at least misunderstood.”

The North Cascades ecosystem is about 9,800 square miles in area, and it’s the second-largest recovery zone identified by the federal government, and of similar size to the Greater Yellowstone recovery zone at 9,200 square miles.

With nearly 1,100 bears in the Greater Yellowstone area, Scott pointed to the number of visitors to the Yellowstone region during 2021 when 5.9 million people visited the national park and nearly 50,000 over-night backcountry permits were issued. It’s not that human interactions with grizzlies don’t occur, but since the park’s establishment in 1872, there have been seven people killed by grizzly bears.

At full recovery for the North Cascades of about 200 bears — which could take between 60 and 100 years to reach — that’s less than a fifth of the number of Yellowstone’s bears, on nearly the same number of square miles.

“We’re never going to see those kinds of numbers here,” Scott said of the grizzly population.

Living with wildlife: Mike Leahy, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior director of wildlife, hunting and fishing, agrees that the population of grizzlies, even over time, will be sparse, especially when compared against other wildlife throughout the country, including 3,000 black bears in New Jersey, 17,000 black bears in Virginia, 75,000 moose in Maine, and more than a million alligators in Florida.

“People have learned to live with all these wildlife and predators in their midst,” Leahy said, joining the interview with Scott. “You have a long track record of people living with grizzly bears in increasing populations in Montana in particular. So I think the chance of encounters in and around the North Cascades is low.”

Even so, it will be necessary, Scott said, to educate those using the North Cascades for recreation and living in communities near the park and its wilderness areas about necessary precautions, such as keeping distance from bears, especially those with cubs; carrying bear spray; making noise so as not to surprise grizzlies; and heeding park and wilderness area staff about the possible presence of bears.

As a potential model for conflict prevention for the North Cascades, Leahy mentioned a Montana program called the Blackfoot Challenge, which works to finds solutions to living with the region’s gray wolves and grizzly bears, including education and conflict prevention for people and livestock that balances safety, agriculture and sustainable wildlife populations across the 1.5 million-acre Blackfoot River watershed, east of Missoula.

Why bring grizzlies back? Even if the potential threat to humans and livestock is minimal, what’s gained by the reintroduction of a predator to a wilderness area? Why make that effort?

The answer, Leahy and Scott said, is because the nature of wilderness requires the presence of the wildlife native to it.

“In the context of 10,000 years of human interaction with bears that were eliminated in less than a century,” Scott said, “grizzly bears were part of a fully functioning ecosystem,” key to the ecosystem’s nutrient cycle, seed dispersal and maintenance of natural distribution and population control of other species, including black bears, wolves, deer and more.

For the last century, Leahy said, federal and state governments, individuals and groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and Conservation Northwest, have recognized the importance of protection and recovery for animal and plant species, including elk, deer, wolves, salmon, trout, fishers, lynx and even turkeys.

“The wildlife conservation community and the public are trying to right some of these wrongs that were done towards wildlife, and restore species when and where we can,” Leahy said.

Included among those seeking a return of grizzlies are some of the region’s Indigenous tribes, Scott said, who lived with the grizzlies successfully for 10,000 years before their near extinction.

As with their leadership in efforts for salmon recovery and protection of Northwest rivers, some of the region’s tribes have been active in the effort for grizzly bears.

“This is a social justice issue, the fact that the landscape has been, from an Indigenous standpoint, incomplete for so long,” Scott Schulyer, policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe told The Seattle Times. “Upper Skagit believes we have a historical moral obligation to restore where we can before it’s too late.”

Preserving biodiversity: The part that wildlife play — especially apex predators like the grizzly — for the health of an ecosystem can’t be overstated.

The reintroduction of apex predators — where they have been absent — has a record of restoring the health of ecosystems, a strengthening of what’s called a trophic cascade, the effect a predator has on the levels of the food web beneath it.

An example: Gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, and are credited with rebalancing the elk and deer populations there, allowing willow and aspen groves to rebound and stabilizing riverbanks that had been overgrazed. The healthier habitats helped sustain populations of songbirds, eagles, beavers, foxes and badgers.

The restoration of ecosystems — with complete and sustainable populations of native species — is key to addressing the earth’s biodiversity crisis, Scott said.

“At an age when we’re losing biodiversity at breakneck speed, we’re gonna need to take advantage of every opportunity to try to restore native species and biodiversity every chance we get,” he said.

Restoring some 25 grizzly bears in the next decade to the North Cascades — part of a larger effort to establish six grizzly recovery zones in four states — is one of those chances.

“That’s a fairly modest ask,” Scott said.

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