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Grin and Bear It? Reintroducing Grizzlies to the North Cascades Provokes Strong Emotions

Until the late 1800s, large populations of grizzly bears inhabited the North Cascades National Park. They thrived in the glaciated, alpine ecosystems that provided plentiful supplies of salmon and berries to eat. But following the rise of the fur trade, grizzlies in the contiguous US were hunted to the brink of extinction. Hunting only stopped in 1975, when grizzlies were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in the North Cascades occurred in 1996

Now, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, along with a loose coalition of nonprofits, Indigenous tribes and local governments, have spent millions of dollars trying to bring them back to the contiguous US. They have faced opposition, however, from ranchers, farmers and livestock industry groups, who maintain concerns about bear-human and bear-livestock safety and the loss of grazing permits on land to be occupied by the bears. 

In 2010, a hiker in the North Cascades took this photo, believing it to be a grizzly bear. Experts have been unable to confirm from the bear’s profile whether it was a grizzly or black bear. Photo: North Cascades National Park and Joe Sebille/Flickr

In its 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) formally designated six ecosystems in the contiguous US suitable for grizzlies, including the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE). The NCE, which encompasses the northern half of the Washington Cascades Range, is considered ideal habitat for grizzly bears, not only because it historically contained bears, but because its glacier-fed streams support relatively healthy salmon populations—a key staple of the bears’ diets.

In 2014, the National Park Service (NPS) began the process of reintroducing grizzly bears into the NCE, planning to finalize a rule in 2017 following public comment. However, in a controversial move, the Trump administration terminated those plans in 2020, with then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt saying in a press release that “the people who live and work in north-central Washington have made their voices clear that they do not want grizzly bears reintroduced.” However, a 2016 poll of Washington residents showed widespread support for the reintroduction, with more than 80% of respondents agreeing grizzly bears should be reintroduced to the NCE.

Following litigation by conservation groups and a continued push by the Biden Administration to restore grizzly bear populations, the NPS and FWS have restarted efforts to bring the bears back.

In a September edition of the federal government–run website Federal Register, the FWS proposed a rule that would establish an “experimental” population of grizzly bears in the NCE.

If this rule is enacted, about five grizzly bears per year will be taken from healthy populations in other areas such as Yellowstone and released in the NCE. Under the Endangered Species Act, Section 10(j), the FWS may designate a population of a listed species as experimental and release it into suitable natural habitat within its probable historical range. The “experimental” designation is key, as it allows the grizzly bears to attempt a comeback in the NCE while still protecting local landowners who may need to kill a problem bear to protect themselves or their livestock. 

A grizzly bear and her cub in Yellowstone National Park. Photo Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr

Under the Administrative Procedure Act, federal agencies must publish proposed and final rules in the Federal Register and invite comment from the public. Interested members had through November 13, 2023 to submit comments supporting, opposing or requesting changes on the grizzly bear rule. 

And comment they did: the proposed rule received over 12,200 of them. (For context, in a GlacierHub analysis of 112 proposed rules with similar characteristics, each rule received an average of 77 public comments.)

National, state, and local environmental and conservation nonprofits submitted comments in favor of the proposed rule. Groups like the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the North Cascades Conservation Council voiced their support for grizzly bear introduction. In addition to submitting public comments, the National Parks Conservation Association stated the reasons for their support in a blog post, saying that an experimental population of grizzlies would provide ecological benefits to the area. 

The North Cascades provide a highly suitable habitat for grizzly bears with glacier-fed streams that sustain salmon, berries and plants that make up most grizzlies’ diets. In return, grizzly bears help improve their habitats by dispersing seeds, regulating prey species and fertilizing forests. Photo: Jenna Travers

Another key supporter of grizzly bear reintroduction was the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, who live in the North Cascades. In an interview with GlacierHub, Scott Schuyler, the natural and cultural policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe, said he supports the proposed rule because grizzlies are part of the natural environment and are culturally important to the Upper Skagit people. Furthermore, the goal of the Tribe is always “to leave the environment in a better place for our kids and their kids,” Schuyler said. In their public comment, the Tribe called for the use of Upper Skagit traditional ecological knowledge of the bears and land in the reintroduction process. 

The strongest opponents to the rule were agricultural groups like the Washington Farm Bureau, who highlighted the negative impacts of grizzly bear reintroduction on local farmers and the agricultural industry. Comments from a coalition of livestock industry groups discuss risks of bear-human and bear-livestock interactions. 

Other comments surfaced worries about the potential impacts of grizzlies on already struggling salmon populations. For example, the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, who reside in the North Cascades, said in their comments that “a natural consequence of the introduction of the grizzly would be that they feed upon salmon in spawning areas….Given the fragility of wild salmon, this resource could be decimated by the introduction of grizzly bears.”

A grizzly bear cub carries the salmon it picked up on the Atnarko River in British Columbia. Photo Credit: Mick Thompson/Flickr

Both supporters and opponents highlighted the importance of tourism to the region and the potential impacts of grizzly bears on visitors. On one hand, having bears in the area could make tourists more leery of hiking and other outdoor sports in the area. On the other hand, the rise of ecotourism around the world and bear-viewing tours in other US national parks means the bears could actually boost tourism. 

Regardless of the FWS’s decision, comments from supporters and opponents alike requested that any work done to reintroduce grizzly bears come with conversation and collaboration between the FWS and local communities, tribes and governments. Grizzly bear populations  in the contiguous US have recovered since their near extinction in the 1970s, but their fate in the North Cascades—and the potential ecological and economical tradeoffs—remains to be seen. 

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