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US Department of the Interior Proposes North Cascades Grizzly Bear Reintroduction
On September 28th, 2023 the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Park Service (NPS) jointly released a draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan and integrated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS evaluates alternatives for reestablishing a grizzly bear population in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE) of Washington State.
The greater NCE, including its Canadian and US portions, is bounded roughly by the Fraser River on the north, the Okanogan Highlands and Columbia Plateau on the east, Snoqualmie Pass to the south, and the Puget lowlands to the west1.
Grizzly bears once roamed much of the northwestern US including the Great Plains with an estimated population of approximately 50,000, but their numbers fell to approximately 500 by 1930. Subsequently, grizzly bears were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975.
The USFWS has identified six grizzly bear recovery zones in the US including the NCE. While four of these recovery zones currently support grizzly bears, the NCE does not. Grizzlies were extirpated from the NCE likely before the ESA was enacted.
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As a part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, the USFWS and NPS identified a “purpose and need” for the proposed Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan. The purpose and need included supporting the recovery of the grizzly bear to the point where it can be removed from the “Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.”
The following are the objectives for the proposed Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan.
- Restore a grizzly bear population as part of the natural and cultural heritage of the North Cascades.
- Provide Pacific Northwest residents and visitors with the opportunity to again experience grizzly bears in their native habitat.
- Seek to support Tribal cultural and spiritual values related to the grizzly bear.
- Support environmental and natural resource objectives related to the grizzly bear and contribute to grizzly bear recovery in the contiguous US.
- Expand outreach efforts to inform and involve the public, and build understanding about grizzly bear recovery.
Three alternatives are analyzed in the EIS: 1) No Action; 2) Restoration with Existing ESA Protections; and 3) Restoration with ESA Section 10(j) Designation (Preferred Alternative).
Contrary to how it sounds, the “No Action” alternative does not mean taking no action. No change would be made to the current grizzly bear restoration efforts for the NCE.
The second alternative considers releasing up to 7 grizzly bears per year for 5 to 10 years until an initial population of 25 grizzly bears in the US portion of the NCE is reached. In subsequent years, additional bears could be released as needed to help meet the restoration objective of 200 bears, which would likely be achieved in approximately 60 to 100 years.
The third alternative (the preferred alternative) differs from the second only in the implementation of an ESA section 10(j) designation for grizzly bears, which means this population would be considered “experimental” and not listed or protected as a “threatened” species. The experimental population status provides more flexible grizzly bear management options including deterrence, preemptive relocation to prevent conflicts, and conditioned lethal “take,” if that becomes necessary.
The NEPA process requires federal agencies to evaluate the effects of alternatives on the human environment. Therefore, the USFWS and NPS considered the effects of grizzly bear reintroduction in the NCE on fish and wildlife, wilderness character, visitor use and recreational experience, bear-related employee and public safety, socioeconomics, and ethnographic resources.
The USFWS and NPS identified potential adverse impacts on population dynamics of other wildlife from interspecific competition are expected to be limited to interactions between individual bears and are not expected to affect gray wolf, coyote, wolverine, fisher, Canada lynx, cougar, bobcat, or black bears at a population level.
Additionally, adverse impacts may occur on employment, agriculture, livestock grazing, tourism, timber harvesting, and mining as the result of the restoration of grizzly bears into the NCE over 5 to 10 years. Tourism could benefit because grizzly bears may draw tourists to the area.
The FWS and NPS did not evaluate potential grizzly bear impacts on the vegetation community, although vegetation is called out as a significant grizzly food source. While grizzly bears are food generalists, the NCE has over 100 plant species that have been identified as common foods.
Public scoping was held for 34 days between November 10th and December 14th, 2022. Approximately 212 people attended four public meetings, with each meeting ranging from 29 to 85 attendees. During the scoping period, 6,207 pieces of correspondence were received. While the specifics of said correspondence were not provided, public comments were acknowledged regarding alternatives that were dismissed from detailed analysis. The following summarizes the public input.
“Public comments included suggestions for changes to the proposed action presented in the Notice of Intent and new impact topics and alternative elements for consideration. Suggestions included exploring natural recovery alternatives rather than direct reintroduction, implementing an expedited relocation process, providing more robust plans for ensuring population resiliency after reintroduction, and considering alternatives that do not implement a section 10(j) rule. Comments included requests for further analysis and review of existing information related to human safety, coexistence with livestock, impacts to source grizzly bear populations, protection of wilderness areas, and increasing habitat connectivity.”
A robust Tribal consultation effort is underway but no associated information is provided in the EIS.
The “so what” surrounding the draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan and integrated EIS is largely public perception, possible impacts on local residents and potentially their ways of life, and ensuring the Tribes are involved in the decision-making process. Grizzly bears were likely extirpated from the area for a reason, be it human conflict, sport hunting, or a combination of both. It may be irresponsible to attempt reintroduction when population goals for ESA delisting have supposedly been met in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and elsewhere. Additionally, the reintroduction program will cost about $800,000 annually.
Questions and controversy aside, the draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan is an interesting paper that anyone interested in wildlife should read, particularly big game hunters and residents of western Washington State.
The EIS public comment period closes on November 13th. The EIS is available at the link in the footnotes, and comments may be submitted here: Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan / Environmental Impact Statement, North Cascades Ecosystem -Submit Comments.