A mainstay of fairy tales, Disney movies and blockbuster Leonardo DiCaprio wilderness survival flicks may yet roam the Washington Cascades.
Two federal agencies Thursday reopened the public comment period on a draft plan and environmental impact statement for the reintroduction of grizzly bears in the North Cascades ecosystem.
The reintroduction effort came to an abrupt and unexplained halt in August when the Interior Department stopped work on the plan. That stoppage came on the heels of then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke supporting reintroduction in March of 2018.
Thursday's announcement surprised both proponents and opponents of reintroduction.
"I'm confused," said Joe Scott, Conservation Northwest's international programs director. "But if this is what it takes, this is what it takes."
In a statement, Conservation Northwest welcomed the new comment period "if it leads to the completion of the (Environmental Impact Statement) and concrete actions to recover the iconic grizzly bear."
At the same time, groups opposed to reintroduction questioned the move.
"From what I understand, that got killed a while ago and now it's being resurrected," said Danny DeFranco, the executive director of the Washington Cattlemen's Association. "I don't know what the purpose of revisiting this is."
Ann Froschauer, the acting Washington state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in an email that "the comment period is being reopened in response to requests from members of the public and elected officials."
As for the August stoppage, she said the Fish and Wildlife Service took more time to "evaluate further stakeholder input" after public requests and "specific inquiries from Congressman Dan Newhouse," a vocal opponent of reintroduction.
If federal oficials follow through on the process following the 90-day comment period, the agency will publish a final environmental impact statement. That statement would address comments submitted by the public and identify the preferred alternative for recovery.
The reintroduction plan and environmental statement already have gone through two rounds of public comment, gathering more than 127,000 comments since 2016. A 2016 poll, conducted by a third-party polling organization, found that 8 out of 10 Washington voters agreed that Washington should help bruins recover in the state.
The draft environmental impact statement offers three alternatives to restore a population of about 200 bears, but all are based on a plan to relocate animals to 9,800 square miles of mostly public land in and around North Cascades National Park. The options differ in the number of bears initially released and the time expected to get to that goal, ranging from 25 years for the expedited option to 60 to 100 years for the other two alternatives.
The Cascades were first identified as suitable grizzly habitat by federal scientists in 1997.
"They would have had a final EIS produced by now if the process hadn't stopped," Scott said. "They would have had one in hand."
Opponents of reintroduction believe grizzlies will kill cattle and endanger people and point to ongoing conflicts as wolves re-inhabit their historic range in Washington.
"We've seen Fish and Wildlife and how they've managed an apex predator like wolves in our state," DeFranco said. "That mismanagement of that species is going to carry over to grizzly bears."
Scott, with Conservation Northwest, said that's not a fair comparison.
"Grizzly bears are not wolves," he said. "They are the polar opposite in terms of reproduction and dispersal."
Female grizzlies spend most of their life in the home range of their mother. And while male grizzlies will wander when they're younger, they mostly establish home ranges overlapping with their mother's home range. All of which means grizzly territory does not rapidly expand the way wolves can.
Plus, grizzly cubs mature slowly, staying with their mother for two to three years, during which time she will not mate.
As for grizzlies attacking humans, that rarely happens.
"It's not an issue. You're more likely to be struck by lightning or killed in an auto accident going to the trailhead," Scott said. "The bigger threat to people and the ecosystem is from climate change, not grizzly bears."
Ursus arctos horribilis once ranged widely throughout North America, including in the North Cascades. A 2018 National Parks Service report found 178 credible observations of grizzlies between 1859 and 2015 in the Cascades. The report looked at fur trading records and in-person sightings. It also examined older accounts and archaeological evidence from Native American cultures in Washington.
Commercial hunting, government bounties, habitat destruction and fragmentation pushed the species to the brink of extirpation in the Lower 48.
According to Hudson Bay Co. trapping records, 3,788 grizzly hides were shipped from North Cascade posts between 1827 and 1859 alone. The last grizzly was killed in Washington in 1967, and between 1950 and 1991 there were 20 confirmed, plus 80 probable, grizzly sightings in the Cascade zone.
While reintroduction and conservation efforts, coupled with the regrowth of forests, have helped grizzlies bounce back in some regions of the country, grizzly numbers in Washington remain perilously close to zero. The North Cascades is the second largest of six recovery zones in the U.S., but only an estimated 10 bears inhabit the region.
"It has around 10,000 square miles of contiguous connected effective habitat," Scott said. "If there was ever a place in the U.S. where you could achieve grizzly recovery, it would be this one."
By comparison, the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly recovery zone in Montana is about a third the size of the Cascades recovery zone and has an estimated population of 45 bears, while the Yellowstone Ecosystem has more than 650.
Recent research indicates that grizzlies bears are good for rodents and plants. A 2018 Oregon State University Study found that bear scat feeds small mammals. The study builds on a previous research finding that bear scat in Alaska was the primary way seeds were dispersed. According to the OSU research, rodents rummage through the bear scat picking out seeds.
Jack Oelfke, the natural and cultural resources chief for the North Cascades National Park, said in an interview last year that those findings highlight the subtle but important part bears play in an ecosystem.
"The reason they have those big claws and that big hump on their neck is because they'll till the ground, literally," he said.
The comment period will close on Oct. 24. What will happen after that remains unclear.
"When the process is moving ahead, I'm confident. When it stops, I'm not," Conservation Northwest's Scott said of the likelihood of bears being reintroduced. "I think when the agencies can do their jobs, we have a good shot at it."