The latest efforts to restore grizzly bears in the North Cascades appear to be on track to take another big step forward in June.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Andrew LaValle recently confirmed the agency expects to put out a draft Environmental Impact Statement in June for plans to bring the bears to Washington state. The process nearly reached a final EIS before the Trump administration shut it down with no explanation in July 2020.
North Cascades National Park wildlife supervisor Jason Ransom said the new EIS should allow for more flexibility for federal officials as they try to slowly build back a population believed to be on the verge of extinction. He's hopeful that will sway opponents concerned about threats to livestock and humans recreating in the North Cascades ecosystem comprised of more than 2.6 million acres of federally designated wilderness.
"We did reach out to all the congressional representatives in Washington," Ransom said. "We've briefed all of them once. Right now everybody's just waiting on the draft EIS that has the real specific plans."
He said those will include details such as additional management options, maps identifying where officials want bears to go and strategies for how to handle animals if they go outside those boundaries. An experimental population rulemaking process would allow the National Parks Service and the USFWS to better manage and regulate bears as they are brought in from British Columbia and northwest Montana.
The proposal would introduce three to seven bears over five to ten years with the objective of reaching a population of 25. Once that goal is achieved, more bears could be released as the agencies seek to create a population of 200 grizzlies within 60-100 years.
A final EIS could be made available to the public in spring 2024, followed closely by a record of decision allowing land managers to move forward with translocations. However, the suspension of the process in 2017 shortly after a draft EIS came out and then the termination in 2020 after 2018's surprising message of support from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke showed how quickly plans can change.
Ransom said the agencies received around 6,200 pieces of correspondence in response to last November's Notice of Intent, and those will be considered along with the more than 126,000 pieces of correspondence submitted in 2017, many of which the USFWS said contained multiple substantive comments. LaValle expects to see a combination of in-person and virtual meetings later this year to discuss the plans with supporters as well as a vocal group of opponents, which includes U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside).
"My constituents and I have consistently opposed proposals to (introduce grizzly bears into the North Cascades) under multiple administrations because introducing an apex predator to the area would threaten the families, wildlife and livestock of North Central Washington," Newhouse said in a statement in November. "I strongly encourage the people of Central Washington to attend the virtual meetings in order to voice their opinion and put this misguided proposal to rest, once and for all."
Conservation Northwest International Programs Director Joe Scott pointed out the majority of respondents favored grizzly bear restoration. He believes the federal agencies could finally succeed at accomplishing what has been a goal since 1987, with formal efforts dating back to 1997, and said the land managers have the most to lose if conflicts with bears go poorly.
"Restoring bears from near zero is quite a difficult task and I don't think people really understand how difficult it is," Scott said. "The animals suitable for translocations to a place like the Cascades, it's a small set of animals out there."
LaValle said officials have already talked to the Colville Tribe and plan to continue discussions with several others, along with local landowners and cooperating agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Although Washington law prevents state officials from participating directly in translocating grizzlies, WDFW's diversity division manager, Hannah Anderson, said the agency is required to be involved in conversations and plans to offer technical support and expertise when possible.
Some 50-70 grizzlies already live in northeast Washington's Selkirk Mountains, one of six grizzly bear recovery zones throughout the U.S. that represent an estimated 3% of the bear's former range. Scott acknowledged some conflicts may be unavoidable but said he's looking forward to helping combat what he referred to as disinformation and a lack of knowledge to help people understand the importance of bringing grizzly bears back to the ecosystem.
"The thing about the Cascades is that it's the only potential landing spot for recovery or restoration outside the Rocky Mountains," Scott said. "If we cannot accommodate them in this miniscule percentage of their former range, what does that say about us as a species?"