Nearly four decades after grizzly bears were declared threatened in the Lower 48 states, long-stalled efforts to bring the species back to Washington’s North Cascades are rolling again.
The federal government announced Thursday it will launch an environmental analysis this fall to evaluate strategies to boost bear numbers. Among the options on the table, the most controversial is the possibility of transplanting grizzlies from healthy populations elsewhere.
“This is huge news for the Pacific Northwest and for grizzly bears,” said Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest, which has been pushing to restore grizzlies for 25 years. “This is the turning point.”
Chris Morgan, founder of the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project, said he had tears in his eyes when he heard the news. “These animals have always lived in the North Cascades, and I think they deserve an opportunity to persist and thrive there,” he said.
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But not everyone is thrilled about sharing the woods with creatures that can tip the scales at more than 500 pounds, run as fast as a racehorse and wield fearsome teeth and claws.
The species’ scientific name — Ursus arctos horribilis — reflects the terror the bears inspired in early explorers, including Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
“Grizzly bears are incredible, wonderful animals,” said Tom Davis, director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau. “I just wouldn’t want them living next door to me, and I think that’s how farmers and ranchers … feel.”
The three-year analysis will determine the best approach to restoring grizzlies, and will involve extensive public debate, said Chris Servheen, grizzly-bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It may not be universally agreed upon at the end, but at least people will know it’s not something that was cooked up in a backroom,” he said.
There’s no guarantee of action even after the process is finished, Servheen added. It all depends on funding, the lack of which is largely responsible for the slow pace of progress so far.
National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in a news release that the option to not restore the bears will also be considered.
As many as 100,000 grizzlies once roamed the Western United States before trapping and bounty hunting pushed them to the verge of extinction.
Biologists estimate fewer than 20 of what some call “ghost bears” still survive in the North Cascades ecosystem — a nearly 10,000-square-mile expanse of wild country that extends from the Canadian border to Interstate 90.
The last confirmed sighting was in 2010, when a hiker photographed a grizzly munching on vegetation in North Cascades National Park. After that report, state and federal biologists launched an extensive search for grizzly scat or hair but came up empty, Servheen said.
The North Cascades ecosystem, most of which is federal land, is one of six designated grizzly-recovery areas, and the only one outside of the Rocky Mountains.
But while most of the other areas have active recovery programs, North Cascades has languished.
When conservation groups petitioned to have grizzlies in Washington classified “endangered” — a more critical designation than “threatened” — the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that the change was warranted but said the plight of other species took higher priority.
“It has become a competition between bears and other animals, which is unfortunate,” Scott said.
A recovery plan for North Cascades grizzlies written more than 20 years ago set a population goal of 200 to 400 animals.
Those seem like big numbers, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.
“The biggest concern I have is that the recovery objectives are set too high,” he said.
Even though recovery efforts will occur primarily on federal lands, a resurgence is sure to affect private landowners in the area, Field added.
Ranchers in the northeastern part of the state are already dealing with livestock losses caused by the return of wolf packs, he pointed out.
And grizzlies can also pose a danger to people.
“The issue of grizzlies and human safety is a real concern,” Field said.
Grizzly attacks on humans are rare, with an average of one fatal mauling every 10 to 15 years in the Lower 48 states, Servheen said.
But in 2011, grizzlies killed two hikers in Yellowstone National Park, where the population of the bears has tripled to about 700 in recent decades.
Grizzly recovery in the Yellowstone area was accomplished mainly through measures to eliminate garbage dumps and to educate people on avoiding conflicts with bears, Servheen said.
But the population there numbered about 180 animals when the project started in the 1980s.
Many experts argue that it will be impossible to re-establish a healthy population of grizzlies in the North Cascades without transplanting bears to kick-start reproduction. A National Park Service spokesman said a decade of monitoring has shown little evidence of bears migrating on their own from Canada.
Over the past 15 years, biologists have trapped about a dozen bears in Canada and around Glacier National Park and released them in the Cabinet-Yaak area of northwest Montana and northern Idaho. Genetic tests show that many of the transplants reproduced, helping bolster the local population.
“We know how to move bears successfully,” Servheen said. “It’s a tool in our toolbox.”
But the idea is so contentious that the state Legislature adopted a law that forbids state agencies from importing bears.
The measure may not block federal efforts, but it certainly would complicate things, Scott said.
Overall support for grizzly recovery in Washington is high, said Morgan. More than 80 percent of rural residents surveyed by his organization in the northwest corner of the recovery zone supported grizzly recovery and agreed that the bears are worthy of preservation.
Grizzlies have an important role to play in wild ecosystems, Scott pointed out. “They not only enrich the ecology but they enrich our lives,” he said. “Grizzlies are no less deserving of a place here than any other creature.”
But to the people on the east side of the Cascades who are most likely to encounter the bears, the push to restore another top predator feels like an attempt by city dwellers to impose their will across the state, Davis said.
“The romance the west-siders feel for the grizzly bear is not equally shared on the east side, where they live where the bears are.”
Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org