One element of a proposal to re-introduce grizzly bears into the North Cascades ecosystem, about halfway through its three-year process, will be open to public comment for one more week.
Citizens have until the end of day March 14 to review the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) of the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan proposed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The draft EIS describes the proposed alternatives for the restoration of grizzly bears to the North Cascades.
The EIS is a draft, and the proposal itself is a draft, because the plan is by no means final.
“We have funding to do this planning, to figure out how we’re going to move forward and what that looks like,” said Denise Shultz, Chief of Interpretation and Education for the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Planning is the first step of the two-step process.
Once the comment period ends, she said, “It will be another six months to a year before there’s a preferred alternative and record of decision.”
Planning efforts to date have included numerous public meetings and webinars, and the ongoing public comment opportunity.
The draft restoration plan, available at https://www.nps.gov/noca/upload/NCEG-draft-EIS-newsletter-electronic.pdf, states it’s unlikely that a viable grizzly population currently exists in the North Cascades ecosystem (NCE).
“There have been only four confirmed detections of grizzly bears in the greater NCE in the past 10 years, all of which occurred in British Columbia and may comprise only two individuals. Given the low number of grizzly bears, very slow reproductive rate and other recovery constraints, the grizzly bear in the NCE was found by the FWS to be warranted for uplisting to endangered status, but was precluded by higher priority listings.”
The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species in 1975, Shultz said, and “It’s still threatened, but some of the ecosystems are seeing success.”
Grizzly bears did make the North Cascades their home in the past, Shultz added, as evidenced by hunting histories.
“Back in the day, there was really a sense that there was an infinite number… it was just hard to imagine they would ever go away.”
If bears were to be reintroduced into the ecosystem, they would likely come from inland sites, such as Glacier National Park, or similar areas in Canada.
“Biologists think the bears will be successful, when they come from areas where food sources are similar,” Shultz said.
For the North Cascades, biologists expect most of a bear’s food source to be fish and plants.
“The important thing is wherever the bears come from, that population is healthy enough to survive having members of that population removed.”
According to the EIS, the ecosystem targeted for reintroduction of the bears “constitutes a large block of contiguous habitat that spans the international border but is isolated from grizzly bear populations in other parts of the United States and Canada. The U.S. portion of the ecosystem is bounded roughly by the Okanogan Highlands and Columbia Plateau on the east, Snoqualmie Pass to the south, the Puget lowlands to the west, and the Canadian border to the north.
The EIS describes the “recovery zone” as roughly 6.1 million acres, of which the NPS complex makes up 11 percent. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest together make up 74 percent, private lands about 10 percent, and other state lands, the remaining 5 percent.
Of the public comments received as of February and during earlier scoping sessions, Shultz said many of the concerns, including public safety, livestock depredation, and road access in areas that might be closed off for grizzly habitat, are addressed in the EIS.
“Grizzly bears tend to like people less than black bears. They tend to be more shy,” Shultz said. “The places where we’re looking at doing the initial release would be areas that are in wilderness… as far removed from people as we can make it work… and to provide good habitat.”
To view the draft EIS and submit comments, visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?parkId=327&projectID=44144, then click the “Open for Comment” link. Additional background and supplementary information about the Draft EIS can be found by going to the “Document List” section of the website.