The federal government is once again making plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to Washington’s North Cascade Range. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service announced in November that they would be initiating an Environmental Impact Statement to begin looking at options for restoring a grizzly population in the Pacific Northwest. They plan to do this by relocating bears from British Columbia and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in Northwest Montana.
Grizzly bears haven't been spotted in Washington's North Cascades Range since 1996.
Some groups say the proposal would make it impossible to delist any grizzly population in the Lower 48 for decades.
The Trump administration prioritized de-listing grizzlies and returning management of the species to the states, while the Biden administration has not.
A minimum of 500 individuals and at least 48 females with cubs is initially required.
The final decision on the reintroduction isn’t expected until the summer of 2024.
The agency’s criteria for GYE grizzly bears calls for a minimum of 500 individuals and at least 48 females with cubs. As of 2021, there were an estimated 1,069 bears, including 84 females with cubs. In terms of available bear habitat in the GYE, the agency explains that all “habitat-based recovery criteria have been maintained since 1998.” The grizzly population in the NCDE is even more robust, with an estimated 1,114 individuals spread across all 23 Bear Management Units as of 2021. That’s compared to the agency’s population benchmark of 800 bears across 21 of those BMU’s.
“By introducing another grizzly bear population, they’re going to make the legal argument that we can’t de-list either of those two populations (GYE and NCDE) until this population, the North Cascades population, is stable and recovered,” explains Brian Lynn, the vice president of marketing and communications for the Sportsmen’s Alliance.
So, why would the USFWS undermine its own attempts to de-list grizzlies by introducing a new population in Washington? From Lynn’s perspective, it all comes down to changes in political tides and the opposing stances taken by different presidential administrations. He points out that the Trump administration prioritized de-listing grizzlies and returning management of the species to the states, while the Biden administration has not.
Regarding those future assessments, the fed’s current proposal considers 200 bears to be a stable and recovered population. This could take anywhere from 60 to 100 years to achieve in the North Cascades Recovery Zone, according to the preliminary EIS scoping document.
As of right now, there are no known grizzlies inhabiting the North Cascades. The last confirmed grizzly sighting in the region was in 1996. There could still be some undetected bears living there, and there are definitely grizzlies living across the border in the Canadian Cascades. (At least one individual has been spotted within 20 miles of the U.S. border during the past five years.) But according to the NPS, this isn’t even close to a viable population, and the agency says it’s very unlikely that Canadian grizzlies could re-populate Washington’s mountains on their own.
“The proposals put forward aren’t asking IF grizzlies should be introduced, but HOW they will be reintroduced,” says Lynn, who lives in Spokane. “They didn’t ask anyone living in the area if they wanted grizzlies reintroduced. They’ve eliminated that option and are only giving scenarios with the end goal of expanding the grizzly population.”
These concerns will likely become more pronounced in the months and years to come. The feds will start drafting an EIS document over the next few months, and they expect to publish the draft by next summer, at which time the public will be allowed to comment. Their final decision on the reintroduction isn’t expected until the summer of 2024.