Federal agencies in Bellingham to talk about grizzly bear recovery efforts in North Cascades

Grizzly bears are in danger of becoming extinct in the North Cascades ecosystem, and national park and wildlife officials will be in Bellingham this week to talk about the next steps in the effort to increase their numbers.

The Wednesday, March 11, open house at Bellingham Central Library is one of six held by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the bear. The meetings are part of the environmental impact statement process for grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades ecosystem, made up of 9,800 square miles in the United States and 3,800 square miles in British Columbia.

The meeting is the first chance for the public to become involved in the EIS process, which is expected to take about three years since its start in mid-January and cost about $550,000. The EIS will decide whether the agencies will take an active role in increasing the grizzlies’ numbers until they reach a self-sustaining population.

The EIS will focus on the U.S. side of the ecosystem, which includes wilderness areas, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

The agencies already are managing the ecosystem as bear habitat, but must go through the EIS process before deciding whether to take an active approach, according to Denise Schultz, chief of interpretation and education for the National Park Service. That active approach could include introducing grizzlies from elsewhere.

“But there are lots of things that have to be determined (before then),” Schultz said.

The agencies want to gather public input and concerns as they consider a range of alternatives for the bears’ recovery.

For example, on the east side of the Cascades, the agencies heard from people who worried about the bears possibly attacking livestock. In other meetings, some raised concerns about what impact grizzlies might have on hunting, and the safety of people who live on the edge of the ecosystem or of hikers and backpackers, Schultz said.

Grizzly bears were listed as threatened in the lower 48 states under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1975. Five years later, they were listed as an endangered species by the state of Washington. The North Cascades ecosystem was one of six areas in the lower 48 identified as having adequate habitat for grizzly bears; it was designated as such in 1997.

“The habitat still exists,” said Joe Scott of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest. “It’s a very rich habitat.”

It’s unknown exactly how many grizzlies remain in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades ecosystem, which stretches from part of Interstate 90 north to the border.

The last observation of a grizzly bear confirmed by a biologist on the U.S. side was in 1996. One grizzly bear was confirmed during the past five years on the B.C. side, within 20 miles of the U.S. That could mean bears are living on both sides of the border, officials said.

Conservation groups estimated there were fewer than 20 grizzlies remaining in the ecosystem. Because of its remote reaches, officials said it isn’t likely people have seen all of the grizzly bears in the ecosystem.

In the 1800s, what had once been an estimated population of 50,000 grizzlies dwindled until there were possibly fewer than 1,000. Within and near the North Cascades ecosystem, thousands of grizzlies had been killed for their hides by the mid-1800s, officials said.

Conservation groups are encouraging people to go to the meetings and speak out in support of restoring grizzlies, which also have been important culturally for the area’s Native American tribes.

“Grizzly bears can be controversial to recover and conserve because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the animal,” Scott said. “We have an ethical and legal obligation to restore the species to the landscape.”