Restoration of Grizzly Bear Population in North Cascades Halted

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) (Source: Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith/ Flickr).

The National Park Service has halted plans to restore the grizzly bear population in the glacier-rich North Cascades ecosystem indefinitely. As first reported in the Missoulian, the order to stop work came from the office of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, which also recently delisted the Yellowstone grizzly bear after 42 years on the Endangered Species list maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. North Cascades National Park Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) that her staff had been asked to stop its development of a grizzly bear environmental impact statement, which would detail the potential environmental impacts of restoring a self-sustaining grizzly bear population to the U.S. portion of the North Cascades.

North Cascades National Park, located in the state of Washington, adjoins parkland in the Canadian province of British Columbia. It contains over 300 glaciers (the largest number of glaciers of any U.S. park outside Alaska). Grizzlies were once abundant in this diverse landscape until habitat alteration and the impact of trappers, miners and bounty hunters decimated the population by the 20th century, according to the National Park Service. It is estimated that only 10-20 grizzly bears remain in the entire North Cascades ecosystem.

The IGBC, an interagency group dedicated to ensuring viable grizzly bear populations across the United States, began grizzly bear restoration efforts in the North Cascades ecosystem in 1991. The group includes representatives from the Forest Service; the National Park Service; the Fish and Wildlife Service; representatives of state wildlife agencies; the Canadian Wildlife Service; and Native American tribes within grizzly recovery areas, among others, all involved in the process of creating a viable grizzly bear recovery plan in the region. In addition, any new federal proposal that could significantly affect the quality of the human environment requires public input and the creation of an Environmental Impact Statement.

A newsletter sent by the National Park Service (NPS) and Fish and Wildlife Service in January 2017 asked for public input on the draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, with the aim to return a self-sustaining population of grizzly bears to the North Cascades. The letter stated that a grizzly bear restoration would “bode well for the ecosystem” and that “an ecosystem capable of supporting grizzly bears— complete with healthy vegetation and prey populations, and secure, remote habitat – is also capable of supporting the other species that call this ecosystem home.” It called for the public’s evaluation of alternatives to grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades ecosystem.

Grizzly bear on a rock (Source: Bauer, Erwin and Peggy/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Grizzly bears are important for distributing nutrients in North Cascades ecosystems. The bears deposit nutrient-rich carcasses away from rivers in forests, leading to significant uptake of nutrients by trees and other plants. This transfer ultimately helps the forest ecosystems and supports the long-term productivity of river corridors. Meltwater from glaciers in the North Cascades contributes significantly to river flow, particularly in the late summer and fall. In this way, they support the salmon populations— a staple of the grizzly bear’s diet— which come upstream from the ocean in fall to spawn. The NPS and Fish and Wildlife Service have considered four alternatives to restore the grizzly population in the region, ranging from taking no action to incremental restoration, which introduces five to seven grizzly bears and establishes an initial population of 25, to expedited restoration that aims to restore a population of 200 in 25 years.According to the Missoulian, the NPS was in the process of reviewing the public comments when the stop order came. “We’re in year three of the process and all the public scoping has been done. The draft EIS went out for public review in spring [of 2017] and we’ve received about 127,000 comments,” Taylor-Goodrich told reporters on December 16, 2017. She also added that the order has stalled discussions with Canadian wildlife managers who oversee a similar recovery process in British Columbia.

A statement by Conservation Northwest on the halt claims that the majority of the 127,000 public comments received for the environmental impact statement were in support of the restoration.

“We are disappointed that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Trump Administration have put North Cascades grizzly bear recovery work on hold, siding with the local extinction of this iconic native species over the strong majority of Washingtonians who support their recovery,” said Chase Gunnell, communications director for Conservation Northwest in the statement. “Equally frustrating is that the many years of science, public education and significant taxpayer dollars that have gone into grizzly bear recovery in our region are apparently not being taken seriously by this administration…That the only remaining grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states outside the Rocky Mountains might be abandoned to such a fate by men who claim to venerate Roosevelt is downright shameful.”

However, there are some who oppose the plan. It was reported in Capital Press that a group of Okanogan County ranchers saw the restoration as introducing another apex predator that would pose a threat to their cattle. A group of residents, representatives of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, representatives from Hampton Lumber Mill, business owners and backcountry horsemen in Darrington, a small western Washington town, also argued that reintroducing grizzlies would hurt tourism because it would close more roads to hiking and risk safety of hikers.

On December 17, 2017, The Yakima Herald also reported that Jack Oelfke, the chief of natural and cultural resources in North Cascades National Park had said that “efforts to restore grizzly bears were on hold indefinitely” and that they were “waiting for additional instructions from the Department of Interior as well as the NPS and US Fish and Wildlife Service.”

But Heather Swift, Secretary Zinke’s spokeswoman, told The Associated Press on December 19, 2017, that Zinke had not directed a stop work order on the environmental review. She did not provide further details in her statement.  No updates have been provided since then, leading plans on hold.

According to SeattlePI, Secretary Zinke is “a champion and promoter of sport hunting.” As reported by the Associated Press, Secretary Zinke is also an advocate of making changes to the national monuments under review by the Trump Administration and has already recommended that six of them be reduced in size.

However, in British Columbia, grizzlies face a different future. In that province, a ban on shooting grizzly bears has recently been imposed. “We want to promote the healthy grizzly bear viewing economy in British Columbia and give everyone the tremendous opportunities to see those incredible animals in their natural habitat,” said George Heyman, the minister of environment and climate change strategy of British Columbia, as reported in SeattlePI. It may well be that this support will help the grizzly populations to increase, in this area just to the north of the North Cascades National Park.  If policies in the US change, larger populations in the park could interbreed with Canadian bears, maintaining the health of both.

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