Federal agencies have begun an outreach and education process that will eventually lead to a plan to bring grizzly bears back to the North Cascades.
At the first of four planned informational meetings Tuesday, staff with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service updated the public on their plans, and fielded questions.
Jason Ransom, wildlife biologist with the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, said the ultimate goal is to bring grizzly bears into the ecosystem, and eventually achieve a stable population. Things such as a timeline and initial size of the population will be determined in the planning process.
Grizzly bears are what’s called a keystone species, because of the significant role they can play in ecosystems. They contribute to biodiversity, eat a large variety of foods and are good seed dispersers.
“Also culturally, they are important — have historically been important — to some tribes and first nations in this region,” Ransom said.
The bears were hunted heavily in the 20th century, and it’s unclear whether any remain in the 13,500-square-mile North Cascades Ecosystem.
Participants at the Tuesday meeting voiced concerns about public safety. They asked questions about how land managers would be able to control the bears and how they would respond to conflicts between bears and people.
North Cascades National Park is a popular camping and hiking destination, and the area is home to ranchers.
Ransom said these bears are omnivores, and about 90% of their diet is made up of plants. What little meat they eat is largely scavenged.
And while they can and do harm humans and large mammals on occasion, they aren’t any more dangerous than the black bears, cougars and gray wolves that already exist in the North Cascades.
“We already live with large carnivores in this ecosystem,” he said.
Once the bears are reintroduced, park staff will step up safety education, but some of the responsibility will be on people to educate themselves, Ransom said.
Wayne Kasworm, wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, responded to a concern that the North Cascades aren’t large enough to support a stable population.
He said the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is similar in size to the North Cascades Ecosystem, supports a population of 800 to 1,100 grizzly bears, which is more than would be expected in the North Cascades.
Public comment on the scope of this environmental review will be accepted through Dec. 14.
At this stage, the two federal agencies are seeking input on what topics should be considered when creating a draft analysis on the impacts grizzly bears would have on the North Cascades Ecosystem.
“Are there topics that need to be analyzed that we’re not thinking about?” Ransom said.
According to a timeline presented at the meeting, a draft analysis is expected by next summer. The agencies will likely take a year after that to produce a final document.
At the same time, the agencies are working on a proposal to treat these bears as what’s called an experimental population.
“This is a way to help reestablish threatened and endangered species in a way that’s more fluid and flexible for people who aren’t used to living alongside those species,” Ransom said.
Ann Froschauer, deputy state supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the experimental designation could give land managers leeway in handling the bear population.
For example, it could allow officials to remove bears that stray too close to a populated area, or if removal isn’t possible to offer permits to landowners to harass or kill bears that put them at risk, she said.
This is the second time the federal government has started to study the environmental impacts of grizzly bear reintroduction. The U.S. Department of the Interior ended the last study in 2020.
The National Parks Service is collecting comments and posting meeting information at parkplanning.nps.gov/ncegrizzly.