Feds to study bringing back endangered grizzly bears in Washington state

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In Washington state’s North Cascades Wilderness, a vast expanse of glacial peaks, carved valleys and ancient forests, grizzly bears once thrived.

According to the National Park Service, it has been more than 25 years since it was last seen there. But that could change in a new federal trial that begins Tuesday to examine whether to reintroduce grizzlies to the 9,800-square-mile ecosystem.

The effort comes two years after the Trump administration halted an earlier attempt to restore endangered species to the Cascades, derailing half a decade of federal planning.

“This is an opportunity to make progress on wilderness, to restore the last missing piece of the North Cascades,” said Graham Taylor, Northwest Program Manager for the nonprofit National Park Conservancy Association. “We were so close last time. I hope we can really do it this time.”

Ranchers and ranchers have historically opposed reintroducing the bear, which was decimated by hunters in the 19th and 20th centuries, and environmentalists say grizzly bears in Washington state are long overdue for recovery. The bear is a key part of the ecosystem and culturally important to Native Americans, and the North Cascades is one of the best habitats for grizzlies. in the contiguous United States, according to the National Park Service.

A public online meeting on Tuesday will mark a “brand new” assessment by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will examine the possibility of bringing grizzly bears to the region, the agencies said in a statement Thursday.

From 2020: Conservation groups upset by North Cascades grizzly decision

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It’s an effort that goes back decades. The North Cascades is one of six ecosystems designated for grizzly bear recovery in the Lower 48, but it’s been nearly 30 years since these recovery areas were established. Other areas in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have grizzly populations, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and there are no known bear populations on Washington state land.

“This is the first step in restoring balance to the ecosystem and restoring part of the Pacific Northwest’s natural and cultural heritage,” North Cascades National Park Superintendent Don Striker said in a statement.

The recovery planning process began in 2020 when the Trump administration’s Interior Department cut it off amid local opposition, led by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), who said ranchers, ranchers and others didn’t want grizzlies in the region.

“The people who live and work in north central Washington have made it clear that they do not want grizzly bears back in the North Cascades,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, pledging to continue improving the grizzly bear population. in other areas of the country.

At the time, voters said they feared bears would attack their cattle or endanger their safety, according to local news reports. In one of 2019 about 450 people attended the meeting with Newhouse, many of whom voiced complaints, Northwest Public Broadcasting reported.

Newhouse, whose office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Saturday, criticized the administration’s decision to reopen the issue in a tweet Thursday, urging voters to submit comments to the National Park Service to help “pass this misguided proposal.” rest once and for all.”

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“The entry of grizzlies into the North Cascades would directly and adversely affect the people and communities I represent,” he wrote. “It’s disappointing that our voices are being ignored again.”

The federal process will include four online video meetings open to the public over the next three weeks. Members of the public can submit comments until December 14.

Spanning a vast swath of north-central Washington, the North Cascades ecosystem includes alpine meadows and jagged mountains, spruce forests and diverse habitats, and extends into Canada, according to the North Cascades Institute. Encompassing the ancestral homelands of several indigenous tribes and peoples, it includes North Cascades National Park, national forests, and wilderness areas.

The North Cascades are good for bears for a number of reasons, including a rich supply of berries, a highly diverse ecosystem and very few roads, especially in the center of the region, conservationists said. Grizzlies are “nature’s gardeners,” spreading nutrients and seeds and helping the ecosystem, said Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest spokeswoman for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.

“If you protect their well-being, then the well-being of the ecosystem tends to go with them,” Callaghy said.

Because the grizzly populations are not close enough for bears to migrate, bears will need to be brought in from other parts of the country. An assessment process called an Environmental Impact Statement will look at ways to do this.

The federal government will also consider a designation that would give local land managers more flexibility in dealing with bears that may come into contact with people. Lawyers hope that this time opponents will be more comfortable.

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“It’s a big deal because it really reduces what some people would call the burden of restoring endangered species,” Taylor said. “It’s 100 percent in response to local concerns and questions about how it’s going to work.” … This is a very clear sign that the government is listening to local people.

Conservationists say encounters between grizzly bears and humans are rare in areas currently inhabited by bears.

“Our people and the grizzly bear coexisted here for 10,000 years before the first Europeans came to this area,” said Scott Schuyler, policy spokesman for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “When you have a healthy ecosystem, the bear will be there, it should be there, like all other creatures. His role is very significant.”

If the bears were reintroduced, the plan would be to bring in five to 10 bears each year with the hope that the population would reach 25, a “small” number for the size of the ecosystem, said Joe Scott, the organization’s director of grizzly work. Protection of the Northwest.

The process would be slow, in part because grizzlies reproduce quickly. Then it would probably take about a century to reach a population of 200 or more bears. According to the National Park Service, in the greater Yellowstone region in 2019, 728 grizzlies lived.

“We’re hoping to get to a point where federal managers and wildlife biologists can start moving bears here.” It’s not an easy process,” Scott said. “We would be ecstatic if we reasonably believed that in 50, 60, 80 years we would have 200 bears in this place.”


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