New study will evaluate options
Planning for grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades is on again, with an announcement last week by federal agencies that they are beginning a new study to evaluate options for bringing brown bears back to their historical habitat.
The announcement by the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) on Nov. 10 restarts a grizzly restoration planning process that began eight years ago, and ended in 2020 when the Trump administration abruptly canceled it.
Last week’s announcement starts a completely new process to evaluate alternatives aimed at restoring grizzly bears to a 13,600-square-mile area stretching from north central Washington into British Columbia called the North Cascades Ecosystem, where the bears once thrived.
The Washington portion of the ecosystem, totaling 9,800-square-miles, includes the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest (which includes the Methow Ranger District), North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
The new planning process announced by the parks and wildlife services proposes a restoration approach that would capture bears from other populations in the U.S. and British Columbia and periodically release a few bears at a time in the North Cascades. The goal would be to eventually reach a stable population of 200 bears within 60 to 100 years.
How to commentThe public is invited to submit comments on the grizzly recovery planning process. For information or to submit comments, go to the project website: parkplanning.nps.gov/NCEGrizzly.
A virtual public meeting about the process was scheduled this week on Tuesday, with another to be held on Friday (Nov. 18) at 7 p.m. Two more virtual meetings are scheduled for Dec. 1 at noon and Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. Information on how to join the meetings is available at the project website.
That proposed action is almost identical to an alternative included in the previous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). But this time the proposal includes another element — designating the grizzlies in the North Cascades Ecosystem an “experimental population” under the federal Endangered Species Act. That special designation would provide land managers greater flexibility in dealing with human-grizzly bear conflicts.
“By designating bears in the area as a(n) experimental population, the agencies can have more flexible options available for management. This would give authorities, ranchers and landowners more options for managing bears to reduce or avoid conflicts while focusing on recovery,” said Hugh Morrison, acting regional director for FWS in a news release.
“The … experimental population designation would benefit the people and property in local communities, as well as the grizzly bears,” Morrison said.
The announcement of the new EIS process opens a public comment period through Dec. 14. Four virtual public meetings are also planned. (See box for information.)
“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,” said Don Striker, superintendent of the North Cascades National Park. “With the public’s help we will evaluate a list of options to determine the best path forward.”
Wildlife advocates applaud
Wildlife and conservation advocates applauded the decision to restart grizzly restoration planning.
“Many rural residents living in the North Cascades recognize that they are in grizzly bear habitat. They recognize that as a native species, grizzlies were here before them, and we should make room for them to return,” said Jasmine Minbashian, executive director of Methow Valley Citizens Council.
“The recovery plan will be responsive to community concerns and needs and will draw on the long and lived experience with grizzlies in other places, such as Montana,” Minbashian said.
“The Upper Skagit people coexisted with grizzly bears in the region for nearly 10,000 years pre-contact,” said Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe, whose territory lies within the North Cascades Ecosystem. “The grizzly has profound cultural significance and its restoration will enrich our ancestral lands and help restore the foundations of our cultural practices.”
“We know how to move bears successfully into new places and we know how to live with them safely,” said Chris Servheen, who worked for 35 years as Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for FWS before retiring.
“Federal and state agencies have worked for decades to lay a sound scientific and social foundation for reestablishing grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem, which has hundreds of thousands of acres of productive grizzly bear habitat,” Servheen said.
The North Cascades Ecosystem is one of six national grizzly bear recovery zones identified in a 1997 National Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, and the only potential recovery area outside of the Rocky Mountains.
Thousands of bears roamed the North Cascades until the 19th century, before they were wiped out by fur traders, miners and others settlers in the area. Nearly 3,800 grizzly bear hides were shipped from forts in the area over a 25-year period in the 1800s, according to information from FWS.
Research has shown the vast wilderness area of the North Cascades can support a self-sustaining grizzly bear population. However, the last confirmed sighting of the species in the U.S. portion of the ecosystem was in 1996.
Although surveys have detected a limited number of grizzly bears in the Canadian portion of the ecosystem in recent decades, researchers say there is no evidence that they will migrate south to naturally re-establish a grizzly population in Washington’s North Cascades.
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states, and are listed as an endangered species by the state of Washington.
“For far too long the North Cascades have been missing an integral part of their unique ecosystem,” said Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest representative with Defenders of Wildlife. “Returning the grizzlies will finally make this incredible wilderness whole again. What’s more, it is clear that the people of Washington overwhelmingly want this to happen.”
A survey of registered Washington voters conducted in 2016 by Defenders of Wildlife found that 80 percent supported efforts to help grizzly bears recover in the North Cascades. Voters in areas surrounding the North Cascades Ecosystem where grizzly recovery efforts would take place supported recovery efforts by 86%, compared to 13% who oppose grizzly recovery, the survey found.
Newhouse opposed, again
The announcement of the renewed planning for grizzly restoration drew immediate objections from Dan Newhouse, the Republican Congressman whose 4th District includes some of the North Cascades Ecosystem.
Newhouse, who has fought grizzly bear reintroduction for years, said “introducing an apex predator to the area would threaten the families, wildlife, and livestock of North Central Washington.” He has argued that grizzly recovery proposals have generated “overwhelming local opposition,” and that local communities have not enough opportunity to provide input.
Grizzly restoration planning began in 2014 under the Obama administration. A draft EIS was released in early 2017, followed by public comment periods and public meetings, including one in Winthrop in February 2017 that was attended by about 150 people.
Conservation Northwest, a Seattle-based conservation organization, obtained public comments on grizzly restoration in 2019 through a Freedom of Information Act request, and said approximately 130,000 of a total of 143,000 comments were labeled as favorable.
Planning for grizzly reintroduction was unexpectedly halted in July 2020 when the Trump administration’s Interior Secretary announced that the draft EIS would be shelved. The announcement came during a meeting hosted by Newhouse in Omak, attended by other opponents of grizzly restoration including county commissioners from Okanogan, Douglas, Chelan and Skagit counties, Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association representatives, and state legislators.
As part of the renewed planning process announced last week, various alternatives for grizzly recovery in the North Cascades will be evaluated by the agencies leading the process. As required in an EIS, the study will include a no-action alternative that would maintain the status quo.
The agencies’ proposed action — restoring grizzlies as an experimental population — would bring approximately three to seven bears to the North Cascades each year over a five- to 10-year period, with the goal of establishing an initial population of 25 grizzly bears.
After the initial population of 25 grizzly bears has been reached, an adaptive management phase would allow additional bears to be released into the ecosystem over time in response to things like mortality and reproductive success.
Experimental population designation
The previous draft EIS included an option for designating grizzly bears as an experimental population (known as section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act).
“Now, the agencies are specifically proposing an alternative that includes a 10(j) experimental population designation are implementing the 10(j) rulemaking process concurrently,” said Andrew LaValle, a FWS spokesman.
Other potential alternatives that could be considered for grizzly restoration include variations in the number or frequency of bear releases in the North Cascades Ecosystem, or restoring grizzlies without designating them an experimental population, according to information from NPS and FWS.
Under the Endangered Species Act, a population of a species can be designated as experimental if it will be released into a suitable natural habitat outside the species’ current range, but within its probable historical range, according to a FWS fact sheet.
An experimental population is a special designation for a group of plants or animals that will be reintroduced in an area that is geographically isolated from other populations of the species. With the experimental population designation, the specified population is treated as threatened under the ESA, regardless of the species’ designation elsewhere in its range.
The experimental population designation provides agencies the discretion to devise management programs and special regulations that “would focus on supporting grizzly bear re-establishment in the NCE (North Cascades Ecosystem), while reducing or avoiding their potential land use and other conflicts in areas both inside and outside the NCE,” LaValle said.
These types of management actions, as described in the 2017 EIS, “could include retrieving released bears that move outside the NCE or venture into areas with a high potential for conflict; lethal or non-lethal removal of nuisance bears; capture and handling of bears for purposes of monitoring and research; and issuing permits to private landowners to harass, haze, or kill bears that are attacking livestock on private lands when it has not been possible to capture or deter depredations through other means.”
Experimental population designation is not necessary to kill a bear in self-defense or to defend others, LaValle noted.
The timeline for the grizzly recovery planning calls for public scoping this fall, a draft plan/EIS release and public comment in summer of 2023, a final plan/EIS release in spring 2024, followed by the record of decision.