Kasworm draws on decades of experience working with grizzlies
Among the federal agency staff on hand at last Friday’s meeting in Winthrop on proposed grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades Ecosystem was Wayne Kasworm, a wildlife biologist who has worked for more than three decades with a grizzly restoration program in the Cabinet Mountains of northwest Montana.
That grizzly restoration program has moved about 22 bears over the past 30 years into the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, one of six designated grizzly bear recovery areas in the nation. It’s the only ecosystem in the country where grizzlies have been transplanted.
When the relocation program started in 1990, there were only a half-dozen bears in the 2,600-square-mile ecosystem near the town of Libby. Today, the population of grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak recovery area is estimated to be 30-35 bears, Kasworm said.
“I believe we’ve turned the corner, in terms of the stability of the population,” he said.
Kasworm, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, came to Winthrop six years ago for a similar meeting on grizzly restoration, held during a comment period for the previous draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). That EIS was subsequently shelved by the Trump administration, and a new EIS, now under consideration, was begun in the fall of 2022.
Kasworm said the Cabinet-Yaak experience can inform the process of relocating bears into the North Cascades, if that is the course that is chosen by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agencies leading the grizzly restoration planning.
“Whenever you move animals — whether elk, bighorn sheep, bears — they don’t all stay where you put them, and they don’t all live,” Kasworm said.
Eight of the 22 bears relocated into the Cabinet-Yaak management zone left the area, and four returned, including one that was recaptured and brought back. Two bears died from of natural causes, one was hit by a train and one was shot illegally.
The idea of relocating bears into the Cabinet-Yaak area “certainly was controversial” when it was first proposed, Kasworm said. A citizen’s involvement committee was created to help with communication between the public and government agencies.
Now, when he occasionally puts out a news release about another bear being released into the area, people in the area barely pay attention, he said.
Relocating bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem would use similar approaches as in the Cabinet-Yaak, Kasworm said. For example, bears would captured and moved from areas that have food sources and habitat similar to the North Cascades, the relocations would occur in summer when food is most abundant, and the transplants would be primarily young female bears with no history of conflict with humans.
A man at the Barn meeting asked Kasworm whether restoration of grizzly bears is motivated by science or emotion. “Both,” Kasworm responded.
Grizzly bears play an important and beneficial role in the wild, spreading seeds through their scat, aerating soil through their digging for food, and acting as “a clean-up crew” by scavenging dead animals, Kasworm said.
And on the emotional side, he said, restoring grizzly bears where they once roamed is “an embrace of an animal that represents wilderness, and the wild side of nature.”