Update: The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are extending the period for public comment on the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan’s Environmental Impact Statement for the North Cascades Ecosystem. The original closing date was set for Tuesday, March 14, but will remain open for another 45 days - through Friday, April 28, according to a NPS and fish and wildlife service press release. Local officials and members of the public requested the extension.
County residents recently offered input on the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan’s Environmental Impact Statement for the North Cascades Ecosystem.
The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held open houses at eight locations throughout Washington, plus two webinars Feb. 13-26, to gauge public opinion of reintroduction options outlined in the 325-page draft. Of the four choices, one is a non-action and three are action plans.
The action plans would each restore up to roughly 200 grizzlies in what is now a functionally extinct population, said Jeff Chan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, who was one of a handful of experts present at an informational meeting Feb. 23 at Sultan High School.
Under the non-action plan (A), it is unlikely the NCE grizzly population will replenish itself, according to the draft. The species’ last confirmed sighting in the NCE was reported in 1996. The bears have difficulty regenerating on their own and require human intervention, according to the draft.
Released in January, the plan was decades in the making.
Ann Froschauer, external affairs supervisor for the USFWS Washington office, said grizzlies have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1975.
There are six recovery zones in the U.S. that manage the remaining grizzly populations, according to the draft. In 2016, research found that the NCE could sustain a population of roughly 280 bears.
The NCE spans from the Fraser River in Canada to the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, according to the draft. Its eastern limits reach from the Okanogan Highlands and Columbia Plateau to the Puget lowlands in the west.
“The NCE grizzly bear recovery zone...comprises one of the most intact wildlands in the contiguous United States,” according to the draft.
Froschauer said her agency has a responsibility to restore the ecosystem to its natural state, which includes a self-sustaining grizzly population. Some recovery plan work was done in the 1980s and ‘90s, though the draft plan’s public process began in 2015, she said.
The draft is up for review until March 14. The document addresses such potential impacts as socioeconomic, environmental and public safety issues. All action plans would include development of educational outreach, management of human-bear conflict, how to monitor reproduction and viability, and how to respond to any unpredicted bear loss.
Roughly 10 bears between 2 and 5 years old “that had not yet reproduced and had exhibited no history of human conflict” would be captured from other populations in Montana or British Columbia over two years under Plan B, according to the draft, then repeated two years later, or switch to Plan C.
Plans B and C would both reach bear population goals within 60-100 years, according to the draft. In C, 5-7 grizzlies chosen using the same criteria in plan B would be released at multiple sites, to establish a core population of 25 within the first 10 years.
In D, grizzlies up to 10 years old could be targeted, and as many suitable bears that could be captured per year could be released into the ecosystem, according to the draft. Under this plan, the number of grizzlies could jump to 200 within 25 years.
Louise Guthrie left a written comment at the Feb. 23 meeting. She said she wrote that she preferred the non-action plan. Her main concerns are the risk of negative human-bear interactions. While the population would spread out over thousands of miles, human territory is extensive enough that the risks are too high, she said.
“It might be fine. We could get a few in the area now, but to put them in deliberately is concerning,” Guthrie said.
Chan said depending on how regulations are designed, the NCE grizzlies could be managed as an “experimental population.” This would give management agencies more flexibility in how they respond to nuisance bears, or animals that have gone too far outside borders set in the plan, he said.
There would be positive and negative outcomes to each situation.
In some areas a population may boost tourism because more people could be drawn in for bear viewing, but also could force land closures if a grizzly is causing safety concerns to an area of human habitation, according to the draft. Depending on which plan is chosen, and how quickly bears are released, hiring on more employees may increase costs, there may be safety risks to those employees, environmental disturbances could occur in drop-off sites, and impacts to vegetation could be significant in areas where the grizzlies are released, according to the draft.
USFWS grizzly bear biologist Wayne Kasworm said he believes the proposed range can support a grizzly bear population because it already supports a self-sustaining black bear population. The two species have very similar diets, he said.
“There’s a risk associated with this, and I think everyone has to put that into perspective — how much you are willing to accept in your daily lives,” he said. “I am not here to tell people they have to accept it, I am here to provide the statistics.”
Currently, Washington state law approves the protection of grizzlies, and management programs that would naturally regenerate the species, but state agencies are prohibited from transplanting bears from outside the state.
Final regulations that follow a selected plan will be revised to include provisions for and coordination with agencies, organizations, community groups and other populations that may be affected by reintroduction, Kasworm said, adding public support will be essential for any plan to move forward.
Julie Tesch, Northwest Region of the National Parks Conservation Association outreach coordinator, said education has been a big focus during the drafting process. Heavily invested groups, such as the Coalition of Friends of the North Cascades Grizzlies, of which the conservation association is a member, have worked to address what they know are people’s pressing concerns. While the grizzly is a top predator, 80-90 percent of its diet is vegetation; its massive claws are actually evolved to efficiently dig, she said.
Tesch said the draft “is the thing to finally make this happen.” With the right support, she said a keystone species, essential for keeping a healthy ecosystem, can be restored.
Froschauer said the federal agencies hope to have a response to public comments gathered on the draft in 2018.