Proposal would reintroduce bears to North Cascades

Photo by Ann McCreary
Grizzly expert Wayne Kasworm uses a map at the recent open house at the Barn to explain grizzly bear recovery proposals.

By Ann McCreary

A wildlife biologist who has worked for three decades to restore grizzly bears in the Cabinet Mountains of northwest Montana has watched the population grow from around five bears in the 1980s to about 50 bears today.

The grizzly restoration effort has slowly rebuilt the population of bears in a 2,600-square-mile area near the town of Libby, much like a proposal to restore grizzly bears in the North Cascades, said Wayne Kasworm.

Kasworm, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), took part in an open house at the Winthrop Barn last Wednesday (Feb. 15) to provide information about grizzly recovery proposals developed by FWS and the National Park Service (NPS) for the North Cascades.

Kasworm answered a variety of questions about grizzly bears from people who attended the open house, which drew about 140 people.

“Some people ask, ‘What good are bears?’” said Kasworm, who has been fielding questions about grizzly bears for years. “Value is an ‘eye of the beholder’ type of question,” he said.

 “Bears are part of the original, native species to North America, a species that humans have either eliminated or reduced dramatically in numbers and distribution either by directly killing them or reducing their habitat,” Kasworm said.

“Biologically, bears function as scavengers, predators, seed dispersers, soil aerators, nutrient recyclers, and other functions,” he said.

“To many people they represent a symbol of wilderness or wild places. Other people hold them in fear and contempt.”

Three generations of grizzlies

 In Montana, where grizzly recovery has been underway since the 1990s, “there are still people on both sides of the issue,” he said.

After five years of research in the 1980s revealed that only a handful of bears remained in the area called the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, Kasworm and other biologists proposed reintroducing bears from other areas to rebuild the population.

“It was not a popular idea,” he said.

A committee of stakeholders, including local elected officials, timber and mining industry representatives, was created to provide input on plans to restore grizzlies.

“We worked for two years, and came to a compromise. We would move four young grizzly females to test it out,” Kasworm said.

The bears were captured in other areas, including British Columbia, fitted with radio collars and released in the Cabinet Mountains between 1990-1994.

 “Success” was defined as bears staying in the area and ultimately reproducing, he said.

In 2004 researchers were able to document through hair samples that at least one of the bears had reproduced. To date, Kasworm has documented three generations descended from one of the original transplanted bears.

Since the relocation program began in 1990, 19 bears have been released into the area to augment the population, including males to provide more genetic diversity, he said.

“They don’t all stay or live,” Kasworm said. “We know of at least five bears that have left” the area after being released. Six have died, including grizzlies that were mistaken for black bears and shot by hunters, and a grizzly that was hit by a train.

“We still put in a bear or two per year” in an effort to reach the goal of 100 bears, he said.

Goal of 200 bears

The Cabinet-Yaak is one of six grizzly “recovery zones” in the United States designated by FWS after the grizzly bear was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

It is less than one-fifth the size of the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE) recovery zone, where the federal park and wildlife agencies propose re-establishing a population of 200 grizzly bears.

The NCE encompasses 9,800 square miles in Washington State and another 3,800 square miles in British Columbia.

The Washington portion includes the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (including the Methow Valley Ranger District), North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

A draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released in January describes three alternatives that would each work toward rebuilding the grizzly population through a process similar to the one in Montana.

The grizzly restoration proposals for the NCE differ primarily in how quickly the goal of 200 bears would be reached.

The open house in Winthrop last week was one of a series held throughout the region to provide information to the public about the draft EIS during the public comment period, which ends March 14.

John Rohrer, a wildlife biologist with the Methow Valley Ranger District, was among Forest Service staff at the open house. He said has followed up on many reports of suspected grizzly sightings in the North Cascades over the years, but none have proved to be an actual grizzly.

 “The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in the North Cascades was 1996 — that’s a long time,” he said.

Although there are grizzly bear populations in some parts of British Columbia, natural and human caused barriers — including large rivers and highways, and habitat regions that don’t support grizzlies — prevent the bears from moving into the NCE and re-establishing a population in that ecosystem, Kasworm said. 

The draft EIS on grizzly recovery says historical records show that the North Cascades was once home to a sustainable population of grizzly bears, and a recent study indicates the Washington portion of the NCE has a “carrying capacity” of about 280 bears.

Recovery alternatives

Restoring grizzly bears is needed to prevent permanent loss of the species in the NCE, to help restore biodiversity in the ecosystem, and to support recovery so that grizzly bears can be removed from the list of threatened and endangered species, according to the draft EIS.

Grizzlies brought to the NCE would likely come from northwestern Montana or south-central British Columbia. The alternatives for restoring grizzlies describe approaches for capturing, transporting and releasing bears, replacing bears that die and releasing additional bears to augment the population.

In addition to a required “no-action” alternative, three alternatives are described in the draft EIS. 

They include an “Ecosystem Evaluation Restoration” approach, which calls for releasing up to 10 bears at a remote site on Park Service or Forest Service land over two consecutive summers.

The bears would be monitored for two years to evaluate habitat use and any instances of conflicts with humans. A decision would be made in the fourth year whether to repeat the release of 10 additional bears, or transition to an “Incremental Restoration” alternative.

The incremental approach calls for release of five to seven bears over a five to 10 year period, with the goal of establishing an initial population of 25 grizzly bears. The bears would be released at multiple remote sites on national park and forest lands, located in close proximity to facilitate breeding among the relocated bears.

After a population of 25 bears has been reached, additional bears would likely be released every few years until a goal of 200 grizzlies has been achieved, which would take 60-100 years.

The final alternative, called “Expedited Restoration,” would not limit the primary restoration phase to 25 animals or set a limit for number released each year. Instead, the number of suitable grizzly bears captured would be released — likely five to seven bears per year — at multiple remote sites on federal lands.

That process would continue until the combination of release and reproduction results in a population of 200 grizzly bears, which would be achieved in about 25 years.

The federal agencies leading the study have not indicated any alternative as the preferred approach.

Bears would be captured in culvert traps and transported by helicopter to release sites in the North Cascades, including wilderness areas. A map of proposed release areas in the draft EIS shows potential staging areas at Eight Mile (Billy Goat), Hozomeen, Swamp Creek Pit, Green Mountain and West Fork Methow.

The draft EIS addresses potential impacts of grizzly restoration on backcountry recreation and tourism, wildlife, wilderness, ecosystem health, public safety, socioeconomics and Native American culture.


How to comment on the grizzly bear proposal

Comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be accepted through March 14. The draft EIS and instructions on how to submit comments electronically are available at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis.

Written comments can be submitted to: Superintendent, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284.

Comments will be considered in developing a final EIS, which is expected to be completed in the fall of 2017.

A webinar providing information about the draft EIS and recovery proposals will be held Feb. 26, 5–7 p.m. To register for the webinar click on the “Meetings” link on the website listed above.