Public comments sought on process to reintroduce the endangered bears
By Ann McCreary
The future of grizzly bears in the North Cascades — and whether action should be taken to restore the grizzly population here — will be open for discussion during a series of public meetings that begins in the Methow Valley next month.
A public open house on March 3 in Winthrop is the first formal step in a process that will determine if and how grizzly bears — believed to be at risk of extinction in this area — will be restored to their historic home in the North Cascades.
The meeting will be held at the Winthrop Barn from 5-7:30 p.m., hosted by the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
In addition to the information sessions, the public is invited to submit written comments through March 26.
The meetings, announced last week by federal park and wildlife officials, will launch a process toward developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which will determine whether federal agencies will take an active role in restoring grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) to the North Cascades Ecosystem.
The North Cascades Ecosystem encompasses 9,800 square miles of land in the United States and another 3,800 square miles in British Columbia. The U.S. portion of the ecosystem includes the North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (which includes the Methow Ranger District) and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
As part of the planning process for recovery, various approaches to restore a population of grizzly bears will be evaluated, wildlife officials said. Alternatives range from taking no action (a required alternative in any EIS) to active restoration, including moving grizzly bears from other populations in the United States or Canada to the North Cascades Ecosystem.
“Given the low number of grizzly bears, very slow reproductive rate and other recovery constraints, the North Cascades Ecosystem grizzly bear population is the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the United States today,” FWS said in an announcement of the EIS process.
Recovery in this area is also challenged by isolation from any contiguous bear populations in Canada or the United States, FWS said.
Conservation groups applauded the announcement that formal planning for grizzly restoration in the North Cascades will get underway.
“Maintaining and recovering grizzly bear populations in and around North Cascades National Park protects this great natural legacy for generations to come,” said Rob Smith, regional director for National Parks Conservation Association.
“The animals have historically helped make this national park a spectacular, diverse piece of wild America, and that’s worth protecting.” Smith said.
A few grizzly bears have recently been sighted in the Canadian part of the ecosystem, FWS said. No verified sightings have taken place in the U.S. portion since 1996, said Bill Gaines, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service who has studied grizzlies in the North Cascades for more than two decades.
The wilderness landscape of the North Cascades Ecosystem is considered capable of supporting a self-sustaining population, but research indicates that the current population of grizzly bears, if there are any at all, “is a very small number,” Gaines said.
Gaines led a study from 2010-2012 that placed hair snag equipment and trail cameras in remote areas of the North Cascades in an attempt to document the presence of grizzlies. The researchers worked in rugged, isolated country considered prime habitat for grizzlies, such as the Pasayten and Alpine Lakes wilderness areas.
The research produced hair samples, identified through DNA analysis, from about 600 black bears, but not a single grizzly, said Gaines.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised. We were looking for very few numbers [of grizzlies] in a really big, remote area. But I was hoping I would find one,” Gaines said.
His research team was able to survey only about 25 percent of the potential grizzly habitat in the North Cascades, Gaines noted. “I do think there are some places where bears could be hiding out. We still do have sightings every year that have some credibility but we haven’t been abele to confirm,” he said.
Help would be needed
If there are grizzlies in the North Cascades, there may not be enough to assure the species’ survival without help, he said.
“I don’t think a small number of bears can hold their own,” Gaines said. “Our research has shown that we have so few bears that we’re going to have to look at the options for recovery. The EIS will go into depth and analyze if we try to recover, what we’ve got to do.”
Gaines said he welcomes the move toward developing an EIS for the North Cascades grizzly population, a need identified in 1997 as part of a national Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan that Gaines helped develop.
“We’ve been sort of living in limbo for a long time without this process. I don’t think it’s too late, but it’s been long enough. It’s time for us to make a decision [regarding grizzly bear recovery] and get on with it,” Gaines said. “It’s important to motivate people to participate in the process.”
Based on his experience with the subject of grizzly bears, he predicts the issue will generate plenty of interest and concern among the public.
“Grizzly bears recovery is a challenging issue for folks. There’s a lot of emotion around it. It’s interesting what motivates people to come to a meeting. Some of the concerns I’ve heard over the years are that it’s a listed species. It’s another way to get the government involved in my life. There are a lot of myths and misinformation,” Gaines said.
“Today the grizzly population living in the North Cascades is too small to be sustainable, but the good news is that there is widespread public support for grizzly bear recovery in Washington, “ said Shawn Cantrell of Defenders of Wildlife. “As we work to bring bears back to the region, we encourage the state to support recovery efforts and proactively address sources of potential conflicts between bears and people.”
Grizzly recovery action is needed, FWS said, to “avoid the permanent loss of grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem.” Recovery would also help restore biodiversity “for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations,” increase the probability of long–term survival of grizzlies in the lower 48 states, and support removal of grizzlies from the endangered species list.
The goals of planning for recovery would be to restore a grizzly bear population and “provide Pacific Northwest residents and visitors with the opportunity to again experience grizzly bears in their native habitat,” according to FWS.
Recovery planning would also aim to “support tribal cultural and spiritual values” and environmental and natural resource objectives, and expand efforts to inform and involved the public and build understanding about grizzly bear recovery.
Once roamed widely
Grizzlies once roamed throughout the western states as far south as Mexico, and were estimated to number 50,000 in the 1800s.
The bears were hunted extensively in the North Cascades during the fur trade boom of the 19th century. According to FWS, nearly 3,800 grizzly bear hides were shipped out of the North Cascades during one 25-year period, and an unknown number of bears were killed by miners and others working in the area.
Grizzly bears were listed by FWS as a threatened species in the lower 48 states in 1975, and the species was listed as endangered by the state of Washington in 1980.
Today only five isolated populations of grizzlies survive and are managed in recovery zones that include the North Cascades, Bitterroot Ecosystem, Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, Selkirk/Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Current recovery efforts in the United States focus on limiting human-caused mortality through conflict reduction and access management, habitat protection, ongoing research and education, FWS said. At the state and federal level, food storage and waste disposal facilities, along with comprehensive education programs, have reduced the most common sources of bear-human conflict, according to FWS.
The EIS for grizzly recovery in the North Cascades will evaluate the effects of a range of alternatives, including impacts to rare or unusual vegetation, wildlife and habitat, wilderness, visitor use and experience, socioeconomics and human safety.
“The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan calls on us to fully consider the restoration of the grizzly bear in the North Cascades,” said Robyn Thorson, FWS Pacific regional director. The public information and comment period that begins in March “will ensure we solicit the public for their input before putting any plan into action,” Thorson said.
The timeline for the planning/EIS process calls for initial public involvement and comment — or scoping — to be conducted this winter (2015); release of a draft plan/EIS and public comment in summer of 2016; release of a final plan in spring 2017; and a record of decision in summer 2017.