Saturday, May 18, 2024

Federal agencies seek public input on grizzlies in North Cascades

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The National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are seeking public input on a recently released draft plan to reintroduce Grizzly bears to the North Cascade Ecosystem.

The plan includes three options for the public to review. Option one is considered the no-action option in which nothing is done and land management continues as is. The other two action alternatives seek to restore grizzly bear populations to a goal of 200 bears over the next century.

"The time has come for the grizzly bear to return to its habitat to take its place in the indigenous ecosystem," said Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe, whose territory lies within the recovery zone. "The Upper Skagit successfully coexisted with grizzly bears for thousands of years, and we should once more."

"The North Cascades are a special place because it's big enough and wild enough to support Grizzlies," said Gordon Congdon, retired Wenatchee orchardist and former executive director of the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust. "There's only six places in the lower 48 that have received that designation as grizzly bear recovery zones and the North Cascades is one of them."

Grizzlies roamed the Cascades for thousands of years before hunting and trapping brought them to near-extinction levels.

Grizzlies are known to add to the health of ecosystems. They help regulate the populations of animals they prey on, transport nutrients through their scat, and promote vegetation health as they dig for food in the soil.

However, wildlife biologists do not believe a natural recovery is possible.

"First of all, grizzly bears are a native species to the North Cascades," said Congdon.

"There are estimates that at one time there were as many as 50,000 grizzly bears in the western United States," Congdon said. "And unfortunately, by the early 1970s, that number had been reduced to just a few 100 grizzly bears with a few bears in Yellowstone National Park, a few bears in Glacier National Park, and a small number of bears in a couple other places in Montana, and their original range had decreased from this huge area in the western United States to about 2% of the original area."

The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear on the U.S. side of the Cascades was in 1996.

The NCE is one of two federal grizzly recovery areas without an established population of bears, and natural bear migration is unlikely to repopulate it. Instead, based on decades of thorough research, wildlife biologists suggest safely relocating existing bears into the North Cascades.

This is the second attempt by the agencies to restore grizzlies to the NCE after a 2015 process was halted by the Trump administration in 2020. At the time, more than 159,000 members of the public wrote comments supporting the reintroduction of grizzlies.

Under both action plans, it is anticipated that three to seven bears would be released into the NCE each year over five to 10 years with a goal of establishing a population of 25 bears. At this point, it would switch to adaptive management.

Under one action plan, bears would be managed as a threatened species with the existing rule under the Endangered Species Act. What makes the process different this time is that the second action plan includes the 10 (j) rule, which would designate the bears as a nonessential experimental population instead.

"This rule is designed to essentially give land managers and wildlife managers more tools to prevent conflict and confront conflict," said Graham Taylor, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

"The Park Service is doing its best to try to create a good environment context for recovery that works for people and for bears," Taylor said.

According to the National Park Service grizzlies are a relatively minor threat to humans especially when compared to other hazards.

"Most of the problems that we have with them (bears) are often caused by humans rather than the animal, and with bears, most of the problems revolve around two things, food and with grizzly bears, they're very defensive of their cubs," Congdon said.

"But if we would deal with food in our communities, like Leavenworth, for example, Leavenworth has a lot of black bears, and it's creating some problems," Congdon said. "Leavenworth is now taking some positive steps to reduce the amount of food and garbage available to black bears. And that's going to make a huge difference in the city of Leavenworth. It's going to make it much safer, frankly, for bears because where there are problems bears are usually ones that suffer."

“We have an opportunity in the North Cascades to bring back a missing icon, a missing icon of the Western wilderness, a grizzly bear," Congdon said. "And that's something that very few places in the United States can do. We have lots of black bears, but we also will have an opportunity to have grizzly bears and that's a very special thing."

"As we move into the future, if we're going to fight against biodiversity loss, we have to be willing to be creative and try some things to restore and maintain biodiversity," Congdon said.

The public may submit comments through Nov 13, 2023, on the National Park Service website. The plan can be found on their website under the 2022 North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. Comments can also be submitted to the office of the Superintendent at North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro Woolley, WA 98284.

Quinn Propst: 509-731-3590 or quinn@ward.media

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