Feds to study bringing back endangered grizzly bears in Washington state

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In the forests of Washington state’s North Cascades – a vast region of snow-capped peaks, rugged valleys and old-growth forests – grizzly bears thrived.

It has been more than 25 years since a human has been seen there, according to the National Park Service. But that could change with a new federal plan, set to begin Tuesday, that will review whether to reintroduce grizzlies to the 9,800-square-mile ecosystem.

The effort comes two years after the Trump administration canceled a previous attempt to bring endangered species back to the Cascades, an about-face that derailed half a decade of federal planning.

“This is an opportunity to move forward in the wilderness, to restore the last part of the North Cascades,” said Graham Taylor, northwest program manager for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “We came very close last time. I believe we can really do it this time. “

Ranchers and ranchers have opposed the reintroduction of the bear, whose population was decimated by hunters in the 19th and 20th centuries, while conservationists say the grizzly’s recovery in Washington is already over. The grizzly bear is an important part of the ecosystem and culturally important to Native Americans – and the North Cascades has one of the best places to live with a grizzly. around the United States, the National Park Service says.

A public hearing on Tuesday will include a “new” review by the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service that will look at ways to reintroduce bears to the region, the agencies said Thursday.

From 2020: Conservation groups are dismayed by the aggressive proposal for the North Cascades

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It is an effort that has a long history. The North Cascades is one of six natural areas designated to support the Lower 48, but it’s been nearly 30 years since these restoration areas were established. While some areas in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have threatened populations, Washington state has no known polar bears, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This is the first step in helping to restore nature and restore the natural and cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest,” Don Striker, superintendent of North Cascades National Park, said in a statement.

The reform project was held in 2020 when Trump’s Interior Department put it on hold, citing opposition led by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), who said farmers, ranchers and others don’t want grizzlies in the area.

“People who live and work in north central Washington have made it clear that they do not want bears to return to the North Cascades,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement at the time, pledging to continue to manage grizzly bears in the North Cascades. other parts of the world.

At the time, local residents said they were afraid the bears would attack their cattle or compromise their security, according to local reports. At one 2019 meeting with Newhouse, about 450 people showed up, many to file complaints, Northwest Public Broadcasting reported.

Newhouse, whose office did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Saturday, criticized Thursday the state’s decision to reopen the issue, and urged the public to submit comments to the National Park Service to help “put this misconception to rest, once and for all.” “

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“The introduction of grizzly bears in the North Cascades would affect the people and communities I represent,” he said. he wrote. “It’s disappointing our voices are no longer being ignored.”

The federal plan will include four online video conferences in the next three weeks, all open to the public. The public can submit comments until Dec. 14.

Crossing a large area of ​​north-central Washington, the North Cascades ecosystem includes alpine meadows and rolling hills, hardwood forests and diverse habitats, and extends into Canada, according to the North Cascades Institute. Their coverage of the ancestors of several species and countries, includes the North Cascades National Park, national forests and wilderness areas.

The North Cascades are good for bears for many reasons, including abundant huckleberries, diverse ecosystems, and few roads, especially in the center of the region, conservationists said. Grizzlies are “eco-farmers,” spreading food and crops and helping ecosystems, said Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest field representative for Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental conservation group.

“If you protect their livelihoods, then the environment goes hand in hand with them,” Callaghy said.

Because there are no grizzly populations close enough for bears to migrate, bears must be brought in from other parts of the country. The evaluation process, known as an environmental impact statement, will examine the process of doing this.

The state will also consider a designation that would allow rangers more flexibility to deal with bears that may come into contact with people. Supporters hope that this will make the opposition more comfortable this time.

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“That’s a big problem, because it reduces what some people would say is the difficulty of restoring endangered species,” Taylor said. “It’s 100 percent responsive to local concerns and questions about how this will work. …It’s a clear sign that the government is listening to local people.”

Conservationists say encounters between wild animals and humans are rare in areas where bears live.

“Our people and the grizzly bear lived here for 10,000 years before the first Europeans came to this area,” said Scott Schuyler, a policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “When you have a healthy environment, the bear lives there, it has to exist, like all other creatures. His role is very important. “

If the bears are reintroduced, the system could bring in five to 10 bears each year, with the hope of reaching 25 individuals — a “low number” of natural growth, said Joe Scott, who manages the group’s grizzly bear operations. Defending the Northwest.

This process may be slow, perhaps because grizzly bears do not reproduce quickly. It would take about a hundred years to reach a population of 200 bears or more. In the greater Yellowstone area, an estimated 728 grizzlies lived in 2019, according to the National Park Service.

“We’re hoping we’re at a point where state managers and wildlife ecologists are going to start moving bears in here. It’s not going to be easy,” Scott said. “We would be happy if we had the hope that we would have 200 bears in this area 50, 60, 80 years from now.”



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