For the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, the absence of grizzly bears in the North Cascades generates an ache. “Our people, you know, can feel that,” said Scott Schuyler, the tribe’s policy representative and a tribal elder. Tribal members feel “anxiety, depression, and pain … knowing that the environment is missing key parts.”
The bears have been missing for quite some time. The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in the North Cascades was 1996, but the State of Washington declared it an endangered species in 1980 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) identified it as a threatened species throughout the continental United States five years before that.
These dates mark historical points of reference, not endpoints of the species in this region. Grizzlies’ long absence may soon be a thing of the past. In September, the National Park Service (NPS) and FWS released a North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan and draft environmental impact statement. The federal agencies are seeking public input to guide efforts to return grizzlies to the North Cascades, with a deadline for comments by Nov. 13.
Groups advocating the return of the bears do not agree on the proper path (and those disagreements ignore those opposed to restoring the bears).
There are obligations to return the bears.
Schuyler explained that Upper Skagit ancestors would like this generation “to repair things, restore things better than when we inherited it.” This is essential, because “we’re borrowing today from our kids and their kids,” said Schuyler. “We have an obligation.”
So does the federal government. Listing species under the Endangered Species Act provides the first step toward halting extinction. But the law obliges recovery, too.
Despite the requirement of the Endangered Species Act to recover threatened and endangered species, agencies have not moved quickly because administrative priorities and timelines change. Between 1986 and 1991, scientists evaluated the habitat in the North Cascades, and the North Cascades subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) concluded that the region remained suitable. Recent studies indicate carrying capacity is roughly 280 bears. In 1991, the full IGBC decided to recover grizzlies in the North Cascades, but only in 2014 did the NPS and FWS begin working on the required environmental impact statement.
The Trump administration halted the process in 2020 by refusing to complete the environmental impact statement. At the time, the Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside) both cited local opposition to grizzlies returning to north-central Washington. The new restoration plan puts grizzly reintroduction back in play.
One of the key ingredients that seems to be smoothing the bumpy road ahead is how the agencies plan to manage the bears. Whenever restoration plans are offered for public comment, environmental impact statements include options. The draft put forward in September includes three approaches that hinge on how the grizzly population would be classified. Each classification type allows different degrees of management and intervention under federal law.
Action … or no action
Alternative A is the no-action alternative. No changes in management would occur, which amounts to waiting for grizzlies to cross the United States-Canada border or wander west from the Selkirk Range.
Alternatives B and C share much in their recovery plans. Both call for reintroducing grizzlies at the rate of three to seven bears every year for five to 10 years. Once 25 bears are well-established, the agencies would halt reintroductions and move toward adaptive management. Both alternatives would include various monitoring activities, public education campaigns, and habitat management. The main difference between Alternatives B and C is how the bears are classified, which in turn affects the rights given to landowners in their range.
Under Alternative B, the grizzlies would be managed as threatened species; under Alternative C, they would be managed as a nonessential experimental population under section 10(j) in the Endangered Species Act. The NPS and FWS identified Alternative C as the preferred option.
Those classifications are meaningful, especially for how landowners can handle grizzlies that create conflict with human activities. In short, the 10(j) designation allows greater flexibility, including relaxed standards for “taking” (i.e., various harassing activities up to and including killing them) species and consulting with FWS over land management plans.
“Without management tools to sufficiently address conflicts between grizzly bears and humans, the escalation of conflict situations is likely to erode social tolerance for grizzly bear restoration among some groups,” according to the draft EIS.
Superintendent Don Striker of North Cascades National Park and chair of the North Cascades subcommittee of the IGBC thinks the 10(j) approach will make a difference with gaining local support. The idea is that local communities who potentially will bear the brunt of grizzlies in the neighborhood might support the new reintroduction plan if the regulations are less stringent, especially for killing a bear, like the 10(j) designation allows.
Brian Yablonski, CEO of Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), sees it that way. PERC focuses on how to make incentives and markets work with property rights for improved conservation; the Endangered Species Act is of special interest. PERC wants to help “find ways to use positive incentives to enhance wildlife recovery as opposed to maybe some of the more negative regulatory incentives that have helped stanch extinction of species,” said Yablonski.
Local landowners and communities, according to Yablonski, “have to deal with the real costs of recovery, which might be depredation or having to manage your business, you know, alongside of predator species.”
If grizzlies are going to be reintroduced in the North Cascades, he thinks it needs to be done “in a way that is most favorable to those who are going to be most impacted by the grizzly recoveries.” The 10(j) designation of nonessential experimental population helps move toward satisfactory recovery. Yablonski sees this as moving toward rewards, not punishments.
PERC thinks it is appropriate see grizzlies back in the North Cascades; the habitat is suitable and could help get the grizzlies off the threatened species list. “I think restoring ecosystems is a worthy goal,” said Yablonski.
The how is the tricky part.
Wilderness Watch is a national wilderness organization focusing on protecting and stewarding all the units in the national wilderness preservation system. About 2.6 million acres in the North Cascades Ecosystem are designated wilderness. Kevin Proescholdt is Wilderness Watch’s conservation director and hopes to see grizzlies restored. “We would love to see that,” he said. “It would be … restoring a magnificent species that is pretty much extirpated. … It would be an exciting project.”
However, Proescholdt believes that some options are better than others. Helicopter use in either Alternative B or C used for relocating and monitoring grizzlies violates the Wilderness Act, which generally prohibits “motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats … [and] mechanical transport” in designated wilderness across the public lands. He would like to see bears released outside designated wilderness in places “that may not be quite as optimal as right in the heart of the whole complex but could still work and not violate the Wilderness Act.”
Ideally, Proescholdt would like to see efforts in British Columbia and the United States working together to establish a stronger, larger, less isolated population of grizzlies crossing the border freely. This would help ensure long-term success, too.
As much as Proescholdt wants to see grizzlies established in the North Cascades, he worries about sacrificing their population elsewhere. Relocating bears from Montana, as the plan currently has it, using the 10(j) rule would take the bears out of their protected status and make them “far, far less protected” as a nonessential experimental population. And besides, “we need those bears in Montana” to disperse into nearby wilderness areas.
Becoming whole again
The operation, whatever the chosen alternative becomes, is complicated and will take decades. Getting it right, and having support so that recovery efforts do not stall as they have done for so many years already, is not straightforward for these advocates of grizzlies as the reactions to the alternatives demonstrate.
For Schuyler and the Upper Skagit, the option not to have these animals living in the mountains is no option. “In a perfect world, things can occur naturally,” he said. “But we don’t live in a perfect world.” Too many alterations, from hydropower to climate change, have occurred to allow natural restoration. Intervention is necessary.
Having grizzlies back in the mountains, Schuyler thinks, would make his ancestors happy, “knowing that the environment is becoming whole again.”
Public comment is due by 10:59 p.m. Pacific Time on Nov. 13.
— Reported by Adam M. Sowards