Washingtonians, conservation groups say now is the time to save a threatened species
SEATTLE – Grizzly bears have lived in Washington’s Cascade Mountains for thousands of years, and a small population still hangs by a thread in the wildlands where North Cascades National Park meets the Canadian border. They may soon be getting some help.
The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced today a three-year process to assess impacts and a range of alternatives to determine whether grizzly bears should be restored to the North Cascades ecosystem in Washington state. The National Park Service announced it will begin developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) this fall. This announcement kick-starts a public process that will explore the different options available to the state and federal agencies regarding recovery of the threatened grizzly bear population in the North Cascades ecosystem.
“The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan calls on us to fully consider the restoration of the grizzly bear in the North Cascades, and the process ensures we solicit the public for their input before putting any plan into action,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe. “We will work together with the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, state of Washington, and the public as we move through the EIS process.”
The U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will be cooperating agencies. Funding for the EIS will be provided by the National Park Service. FWS and other cooperating agencies and partners will provide technical support throughout.
“This is huge news, for the Pacific Northwest and for grizzly bears,” said Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest. “It marks the potential turning point in the decade’s long decline of the last grizzly bears remaining on the U.S. West Coast. Without recovery efforts, these bears may soon be gone forever. This week’s announcement renews hope that this wilderness icon will roam the North Cascades for generations to come.”
With nearly 10,000 square miles stretching from I-90 north to the Canadian border and including North Cascades National Park and portions of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forests, the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area is one of largest blocks of wild federal land remaining in the lower 48 states. And it’s the only federally designated grizzly bear recovery area outside the greater Rocky Mountains.
“Having grizzly bears in the Cascades is part of our region’s heritage and identity, and the Tulalip people have long held a cultural connection with these bears. It would be tragic to lose those connections,” said state Senator John McCoy, D-Marysville. “We must act before they are gone for good. I support efforts by North Cascades National Park and the USFWS to begin environmental analysis regarding measures to save and recover the North Cascades grizzly population in a way that incorporates thorough citizen, community and stakeholder input, and fully respects tribal treaty rights.”
The agencies leading the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) review of possible recovery efforts stress that a range of strategies and alternatives will be considered, and local communities, residents and stakeholders will have opportunities for input on the development and selection of the recovery plan going forward.
“Today’s announcement presents a unique opportunity for us to fully participate in a rigorous public process that will consider a wide range of alternatives for grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades,” said Phil Anderson, Director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We welcome the opportunity to participate as a cooperating agency with the National Park Service and the other federal agencies interested in the conservation and recovery of grizzly bears in Washington.”
While no grizzly bears have been sighted on the U.S. side of the Cascades for several years, there is a population of as many as 50 grizzly bears in Washington’s Selkirk Mountains north of Spokane. Many wildlife scientists believe the existing population in the North Cascades, estimated at fewer than 20 animals, may soon go extinct.
But independent polling has shown that’s not something the Washington public can accept. There’s strong support for grizzly bear recovery in the Cascades that transcends geographic and demographic lines. In a 2005 poll by the group Western Wildlife Outreach, 86% of respondents agreed that grizzly bears in the North Cascades should be preserved for future generations, and 79% supported grizzly bear recovery in the region.
“Keeping grizzly bears in and around North Cascades National Park protects this great natural legacy for generations to come,” said Rob Smith, Northwest Regional Director for National Parks Conservation Association. “Millions of people live within minutes of this spectacular piece of wild America, and that’s worth protecting.”
Conservation Northwest has worked on grizzly bear recovery in the Northwest for 25 years. “But that’s a half-second tick compared to the millennia that grizzly bears have walked the Cascades,” said Scott.
If the North Cascades grizzly population is successfully recovered, the region will once again have healthy populations of all the native predators that were present prior to the turn of the 19th century, something possible in very few places in the continental U.S.
“Even though thousands of people live, work and recreate in bear country every year from Wyoming to Montana, Idaho and Washington state, grizzly bear attacks are extremely rare,” said bear expert and filmmaker Chris Morgan. “With some education and awareness, steps to recreate safely in grizzly country are really pretty easy and straightforward.”
North Cascades National Park already recommends visitors carry bear spray and requires them to keep camps bear-safe by using specially designed bear resistant trash receptacles, bear canisters, or by hanging food, cooking utensils, trash and other fragrant items at least ten feet off the ground and more than 100 yards from tents or sleeping areas.
“It becomes a second nature habit when you’re in bear country,” said Morgan. “It certainly is for me.”
Morgan believes grizzly bears epitomize wildness. “Where these iconic animals can live and roam, there is clear air, clean water and wild country. What’s good for bears is good for people, too. Grizzly bear recovery and wilderness protection and recreation are compatible as people and bears both need large, unspoiled wilderness areas.”
Full grizzly recovery would likely take many decades. But biologists have found that the North Cascades ecosystem has the quantity and quality of habitat to support a significant self-sustaining population of grizzly bears. If bear recovery efforts do take place following the EIS, they are expected to be conducted deep in the area’s backcountry and far from popular access areas, making human interaction with the recovering bear population unlikely.
Guidebook author and avid Northwest hiker Craig Romano believes grizzlies are an important component to a healthy North Cascades ecosystem.
“When you hike in grizzly country all of your senses are heightened,” says Romano. “When I hike northeastern Washington’s Salmo-Priest Wilderness, it feels wilder than other parts of the Northwest. Why? Grizzly bears. You may never see one, but knowing that they are there validates that you are traveling across hallowed grounds—a landscape retaining one of its wildest components. And a shrinking part of our natural heritage.”
Recreation and conservation groups will be actively engaged in the environmental analysis to be sure the North Cascades recovery process is led by the best science and information, stakeholder and citizen input, and the deeply held value by so many in Washington state that grizzly bears deserve a place in Washington’s wild North Cascades for many generations to come.
“We always have to consider the needs of the local communities” says Morgan. “And there is excellent evidence to show that grizzly bears are good for business. They boost local economies and we see so much support for grizzly bears among the people we talk to on the ground in Washington. They are fascinating and complex animals that certainly capture the imagination.”
Said Senator McCoy, “now is the time to begin these recovery efforts so that future generations can experience a connection with a wild North Cascades shared with grizzly bears, rather than a landscape made less wild in their absence.”
About National Parks Conservation Association
Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than one million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.
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