Grizzly bear decisions coming in 2017

Crosscut archive image.

A grizzly bear in Glacier National Park Credit: National Park Service/Wikimedia Commons

Federal officials say they will decide in late 2017 whether and how to reintroduce grizzly bears to Washington's Northern Cascades.

The 2017 target came up during a briefing on grizzly bear restoration Tuesday for the Washington Senate Natural Resources Committee, which heard from two federal officials on their agencies’ bear studies.

In the 19th century, the state's Northern Cascades were filled with grizzlies, but the last confirmed Washington Cascades sighting of a grizzly north of Interstate Highway 90 was in 1996. Much of that territory has not been scouted for grizzlies.

Karen Taylor-Goodrich, superintendent of the North Cascades National Park Complex, and Eric Rickerson, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's state supervisor, spoke to the Senate committee about the possible reintroduction of the grizzlies to the Northern Cascades, where the land is 97 percent publicly owned. The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are the lead agencies on grizzlies planning.

They expect to have a draft environmental impact study publicly available by mid-2016 with multiple options on how to restore the grizzlies. Federal officials have so far declined to say what those choices might be.

The public will provide feedback on that draft report in late 2016, with the final environmental impact study scheduled for release in mid-2017. The feds are expected to decide on a course of action in the fall of 2017.

The federal government declared grizzlies to be a threatened species in 1975, and Washington declared them as a state endangered species in 1980.

There are two traditional grizzly bear territories in Washington. One is 9,800 square miles of the Northern Cascades, south of an adjacent 3,800 square miles of British Columbia Cascades. While British Columbia has a sizable grizzly population, only a handful lives in the southern Canadian Cascades. The state's other grizzly turf is a speck of northeastern Washington that forms the Selkirk-Cabinet-Yaak territory with northernmost Idaho and northwestern Montana. The Selkirk-Cabinet-Yaak territory has only a handful of grizzlies.

Black bears are plentiful in both territories, with about 1,500 in Washington's Northern Cascades. Grizzlies are bigger and roam farther than black bears.

Restoring a grizzly population would be slow — conceivably taking 100 years to tally 300 grizzlies. A mother bear gives birth once every three to five years to one or two cubs, taking care of her offspring for 2.5 to 4.5 years. About half of the cubs die in the first year of life.

A complicating factor is that Washington's laws forbid the importation of outside grizzly bears into the state. Taylor-Goodrich said the federal environmental study will have to address that issue.

In earlier public comments on grizzly planning, concerns have been voiced about safety risks to people Elizabeth Ruther, representing Defenders of Wildlife, told the committee, "Living safely with grizzlies requires the same common sense efforts as with black bears."

  

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John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government. He can be followed on Twitter: @johnstang_8