Grizzly bears once roamed the rugged landscape of the North Cascades in Washington state but few have been sighted in recent decades.
Federal officials want to restore the population, and on Thursday they released a draft plan with four options, ranging from taking no action to varying efforts to capture bears from other locations and transplant them to 9,800 square miles of mostly public land.
That land includes Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Two of the alternatives envision a goal of about 200 bears within 60 to 100 years, while a third expedited option expects to restore 200 animals in 25 years.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not pick a preferred alternative. Instead they’re seeking input over the next several weeks on what steps they should take to restore grizzly bears to their natural range.
The draft plan comes as the federal government is deciding whether to lift protections for more than 700 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. Officials had planned to finalize by the end of 2016 a proposal to turn management of grizzlies over to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming officials and allow limited hunting, but a deluge of opposition is tying up a decision.
Federal officials note that grizzly bears tend to avoid areas of human activity, and the animals would be relocated in remote areas. They’ll also be radio-collared and monitored.
In Washington, the grizzly plan has stoked intense debate. Federal officials sought input in 2015 as a draft environmental impact statement was developed.
Supporters said the shy, massive creatures – a symbol of true wilderness – should be brought back, that the population won’t recover without help and that their return would increase the biodiversity of the ecosystem.
Others said the animals should recovery naturally, while others worried about potential increased dangers to people and livestock and opposed the move over potential impacts to communities, ranchers, farmers and others.
Federal officials note that grizzly bears tend to avoid areas of human activity, and the animals would be relocated in remote areas, away from grazing allotments. They would be radio-collared and monitored. Grizzly bears would likely come from northwestern Montana or south-central British Columbia.
The bears are at risk of local extinction, and recovering them would enhance the population’s survival, restore the animal as part of the area’s cultural heritage and provide people the chance to experience the animals in their native habitat, federal officials say.
Without intervention, the animals could disappear. Individual bears are increasingly isolated and have limited opportunity to breed, the agencies said.
An estimated 50,000 grizzlies once roamed much of North America. Most were killed by hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries and they now occupy only about 2 percent of their original range across the Lower 48 states.
They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. And in the North Cascades, the population is estimated to be fewer than 20, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The most recent confirmed sighting of a bear was in 1996 in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades. A bear, however, was confirmed in British Columbia within 20 miles of the U.S. border
The North Cascades offer some of the best habitat to recover the animals, and a federal 1997 plan designated the area as one of five grizzly bear recovery zones. The others are in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The 1997 plan called for an environmental review to evaluate alternatives for recovering the North Cascades grizzly population, but no funds were allocated until 2014. The environmental impact statement is expected to be finalized this fall.
Eight public meetings are scheduled in February. The public can weigh in on the draft environmental impact statement through March 14.
The Bellingham Herald reporter Kie Relyea contributed to this report.
Give your opinion
People can learn about the federal plan to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades at a Feb. 21 public meeting in Bellingham.
Find the draft plan online at parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis.
The public meeting will be 6 to 8 p.m. at the Oxford Suites, 4051 Meridian St., near East Bakerview Road.
Webinars also have been scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Feb. 14 and 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 26 . To register, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis and click on the “Meeting Notices” link.
Written comments on the draft can be submitted through March 14. Mail them to Superintendent’s Office, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284. Or submit them online at parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis. Select “Open for Comment” and then “Draft EIS.”