Grizzly bears haven't been in this national park since 1996: Why officials want them back

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(NEXSTAR) – Grizzly bears, a protected threatened species in the lower 48 states, haven’t been spotted in part of their natural territory in the Pacific Northwest since the late 1990s. Federal environmental officials are hoping to – again – launch efforts to restore their population.

Grizzly bears are primarily found throughout Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, the very northeastern corner of Washington, and into Canada. The bears used to cover a much larger territory, spanning through much of the western United States and Canada, central Mexico, and most of Alaska, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Before 1800, as many as 50,000 grizzly bears were believed to live throughout 18 states from Washington south to Nevada and west to Minnesota and Texas. After the population dipped into the 700 and 800 range by 1975, the grizzly bear population has expanded to at least 1,900, FWS reports.

The population expansion is largely thanks to human efforts across six “recovery zones” deemed large enough and plentiful enough in resources to help the grizzly bear population recover. Those zones stretch through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Canada.

Now, FWS and the National Park Service are hoping to restart efforts initially ended by the Department of Interior in 2020 to bring grizzly bears back to an area in which they haven’t been reported since 1996: the North Cascades of Washington state. (A grizzly was, however, photographed by a hiker in the Cascades in 2011).

Why are officials hoping to reintroduce a species eradicated from the region?

They’re a vital part of the ecosystem.

“Grizzly bears in the North Cascades ecosystem are considered a keystone species, playing an important role in biodiversity,” Andrew LaValle, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tells Nexstar. “They are also notorious seed dispersers, spreading seeds both within and across elevations​. They aerate the soil, giving new vegetation a chance to flourish.”

Grizzly bears will adapt their diets based on what is available in their environment, according to the FWS. They’ve been noted to eat more than 260 species of food, ranging from mammals or fish (dead or alive), insects, worms, and plants. Grizzlies have been known to eat human foods, garbage, grasses, berries, seeds, and fungi as well.

Though they are omnivores, feeding mostly on vegetation, grizzly bears have been known to attack livestock, causing concern among farmers. FWS and NPS addressed the concern, saying they anticipate the attacks on livestock would be small while the bear population is small – their plan hopes to bring the population in the North Cascades to 200.

“Using a U.S Department of Interior formula based on the number of grizzly bears and number
of cattle and sheep in the ecosystem, we could expect approximately three livestock
depredations per year (1 cow, 2 sheep) when the population of grizzly bears reaches 200,” the agencies write in an FAQ shared with their planning process. They go on to suggest “a variety of non-lethal and preventative deterrent options for reducing and avoiding conflicts,” like installing electric fences and storing foods.

LaValle notes that black bears already live in the area and that the same precautions taken around that species are effective around grizzlies.

Federal wildlife officials will also consider adding a special designation known as a 10(j) experimental population, which is used “for a group of plants or animals that will be reintroduced in an area that is geographically isolated from other populations of the species.” Under a 10(j) designation, the species is treated as threatened, meaning FWS can enact management programs and special regulations on the population.

For example, FWS explains that under the 10(j) rules laid out for the black-footed ferrets made “incidental harm to ferrets legal when it happens as a result of otherwise lawful activities including traditional management or land use.”

“A 10(j) experimental population designation,” according to LaValle, “would provide additional tools for reducing conflicts in the event that restoration does take place.”

Before any grizzly bears return to the North Cascades – at least with the help of NPS and FWS – multiple steps of the planning process need to unfold. Currently, the plan sits at step two of nine.

Part of the process is inviting the public to comment on the plan. Virtual public meetings are scheduled over the next three weeks.

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