The on-again, off-again effort to return grizzly bears to North Cascades National Park is back on.
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke surprised wildlife advocates last year when he announced he was a fan of the bear and supported reintroduction to the North Cascades. However, he stopped work on the plan last August, with no plan for how it would be resumed.
That changed Thursday when the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the public-comment period has been reopened. A 90-day extension of the comment period on the draft grizzly bear recovery plan and environmental impact statement begins Friday and closes Oct. 24.
Biologists estimate that fewer than 10 grizzly bears remain in the North Cascades, the most at-risk bear population in North America. The last verified grizzly sighting in Washington’s Cascades was in 1996, with more recent sightings in the British Columbia portion of the ecosystem.
The main threat to grizzly bears in the North Cascades is this small population size and isolation from other grizzly populations in central British Columbia and the Rocky Mountains. Successful restoration of North Cascades grizzly bears would restore a key predator to its home, where it has not roamed since the turn of the 19th century, and bring a healthier ecological balance to the area.
“We are pleased to see recovery efforts for grizzly bears in the North Cascades get back on track,” said Robb Krehbiel, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation nonprofit.
“The science is clear on the ecological benefits of grizzly bears,” Krehbiel said. “Defenders of Wildlife has been proactively working with partners in the region to prevent human-bear conflicts. We know that Washington communities can thrive alongside these bruins. It’s time to bring back the bears.”
Zinke, who resigned in December, had committed to finalizing a plan to return grizzlies to the North Cascades Ecosystem before the end of last summer. He had restarted the North Cascade Grizzly Bear Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process to analyze options to recover this state’s population of bears, allowing agencies to review the more than 126,000 public comments received in 2017.
The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone is anchored by North Cascades National Park. The area includes nearly 10,000 square miles of wild country. The North Cascades were singled out for grizzly bear reintroduction by federal scientists in 1997 after they determined the area had sufficient quality habitat to support a self-sustaining population of grizzly bears — as it did for thousands of years.
Beyond the predator’s historic place in the food chain, grizzly bears contribute to the North Cascades ecosystem by spreading seeds and turning soil while they dig for roots.
The grizzly recovery study was announced in 2014 during the Obama administration as a three-year process. In mid-2017, Interior officials, without clear explanation, halted progress on the recovery efforts. Now the process has kicked back into gear.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other ranching groups opposed the reintroduction effort and reacted with just as much surprise to the administration’s announcement last year.
To comment on the proposal, go to https://parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis. Or, mail or hand-deliver comments to: Superintendent’s Office, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 Highway 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a correction that misstated the year of the last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear on the U.S. side of the North Cascades. It was 1996, not 2011. Federal agency biologists in 2011 thought a photo presented by a hiker was of a grizzly bear. However, the biologists subsequently reversed their conclusion on the basis of new photos. Agencies have since reverted to 1996 as the most recent confirmed sighting and developed new criteria for future confirmations.