(The Center Square) — Grizzly bear sightings have become a rare event in Washington state. That could change if a federal program to reintroduce the bears to the Northern Cascades Ecosystem is approved by the Department of the Interior.
The plan, jointly created by the National Parks Service and U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, is to take bears either from British Columbia or northwest Montana and introduce them into the Northern Cascades at the rate of 3 to 7 bears per year. The goal over 5 to 10 years is to establish a population of 25 grizzlies. The project aims to produce a population of about 200 grizzly bears within 100 years.
A previous restoration effort was started and stopped twice between 2017 and 2020.
“With the public’s help we will evaluate a list of options to determine the best path forward,” North Cascades National Park Superintendent Don Striker said in a statement.
Grizzly bears were added to the list of threatened species in the lower 48 states in 1975 and have been listed as an endangered species in Washington since 1980. It’s estimated there are currently less than 20 grizzlies in the state, though a female was fitted with a radio collar and released last year, along with her three cubs, according to the Washington DFW.
The restoration is needed to help restore the biodiversity of the region and help ensure the survival of the species and, eventually, remove it from the endangered list, according to a joint statement by both sponsoring agencies.
An estimated 60,000 grizzly bears inhabit North America, half of them in Alaska. Approximately 2,000 exist in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
If the program is approved, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife expects that it will both support the federal effort at monitoring the population and outreach to local residents.
“We are committed to grizzly bear recovery in Washington and plan to partner with the federal agencies and provide technical support to their initiative,” WDFW Wildlife Program Director Eric Gardner said in a statement. “WDFW has been an active participant in the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, working alongside other western states for the conservation and management of the species.”
The plan has been hailed by Tribal leaders, conservation groups and other wildlife advocates.
“The grizzly has profound cultural significance and its restoration will enrich our ancestral lands and help restore the foundations of our cultural practices. We thank Secretary Haaland for leading this effort and look forward to welcoming grizzlies back home,” Scott Schuyler, Policy Representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe said in a statement.
Others criticized the plan as negatively impacting the region.
“My constituents and I have consistently opposed proposals to [reintroduce grizzly bears] under multiple administrations because introducing an apex predator to the area would threaten the families, wildlife, and livestock of North Central Washington,” state Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-4th Dist., said in a news release. “I strongly encourage the people of Central Washington to attend the virtual meetings in order to voice their opinion and put this misguided proposal to rest, once and for all.”
Public comment on the plan is open through Dec. 14. Virtual public meetings are scheduled for Nov. 15, 18, Dec. 1, 2.