By Joe Scott, International Conservation Director
Grizzly bear recovery is nothing if not process. For the Cascades that process already spans two and a half decades.
It goes back to 1975 if you count other areas where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been working to restore grizzlies to a small portion of their former range.
The effort to restore grizzlies to the North Cascades began in 1986 when habitat biologists undertook a six year study to determine whether a roughly three million acre, 10,000 square mile area of contiguous park, wilderness and national forests could support a viable grizzly bear population.
The study led to the designation of the North Cascades as a “Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone” in 1991 alongside four others in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Together these five recovery zones would represent the last strongholds of an iconic animal that had once lived virtually everywhere west of the Mississippi, from plains to mountains to sea, in the tens of thousands.
In 1997 the USFWS approved the North Cascades “Recovery Plan” which recommended preliminary actions for recovery. But it did not mandate or set in motion a full range of recovery actions. It did create a subcommittee of government agency reps with direction to manage the recovery zone for grizzly bear conservation.
The 1997 plan recommended one critical action that wouldn’t get underway for another 18 years—initiation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that would engage the public in possible recovery strategies, including proposals for bear transplants. It had become obvious to wildlife biologists that North Cascades grizzlies wouldn’t recover without help.
We are now one year into the three year EIS. The first or “scoping” phase completed last year included six public meetings in communities around the recovery zone and a 60-day public comment period. During this period, strong support for grizzly bear restoration was demonstrated by Conservation Northwest and Washingtonians from around our state.
In fall 2016 wildlife officials are expected to release a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that will propose a range of grizzly recovery alternatives. We hope the preferred strategy will include the transplant of bears into this ecosystem, something science shows is required for the population to gain a foothold towards recovery.
The next few months will likely determine whether our children and grandchildren will ever see grizzly bears in the North Cascades in their lifetimes. Restoring grizzly bears will not be easy; it will take time and patience. And it will only work with the support of local communities.
Grizzly bears are a vital part of our region’s ecosystems and thus of our natural heritage. They’re a yardstick to gauge the health of our wild places. They’ve lived in the North Cascades for tens of thousands of years. Now it’s up to all of us to build support for restoring them before it’s too late.
For a wild future that includes grizzly bears, please make sure your voice is heard loud and clear on this issue.