August 2, 2016

The Pacific Northwest is ready to bring more grizzlies back to the North Cascades

Washington state’s North Cascades Ecosystem is one of the largest intact blocks of wilderness remaining in the continental U.S., encompassing more than 6.3 million acres of federal, state and private lands – that’s nearly three times the size of Yellowstone National Park! This stunning mountainous landscape supports wolverines, bald eagles and other iconic American wildlife. But something is missing.

Grizzly bear sightings are very rare in the North Cascades. Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 10 grizzlies left in this ideal bear habitat, even though it is one of five designated recovery areas for grizzlies in the U.S. Despite the large size of the recovery area, the grizzly population cannot recover without help because there are simply not enough bears left. Grizzlies in the North Cascades are isolated, and don’t have the opportunity to interact and mate with populations in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Even Canadian bears have a hard time reaching this area. And if isolation is the problem, the most effective short-term solution is adding more bears.

Fortunately, this population is undergoing a focused recovery effort. The National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are putting together a plan for restoring a healthy population of grizzly bears to the North Cascades.

Sharing a Space

Eighty percent of Washingtonians support the idea of restoring more grizzlies to the North Cascades, according to a recent poll. Support was even higher among residents of the North Cascades themselves: 86 percent in the six surrounding counties. Why are people so pro-grizzly? Because it’s Washington, and people here seem to understand how connected we are to the natural world. They’ve lived here all their lives because of the region’s rich natural heritage and a deep sense of place. People move here for the incredible beauty of the Northwest. Washingtonians accept the idea of sharing their space with wild creatures.

Because there is a lot of space to share, adding bears to the area would not bring them very close to humans. Wenatchee, WA, the nearest large town, is about 200 miles from the area where bears are currently observed in the North Cascades.

Sharing space also means getting people and the landscape ready for grizzly bears. Adding more bears, even in remote wilderness areas, may increase interactions between humans and bears, so education is key. Defenders of Wildlife is educating people about how to safely enjoy the outdoors in the North Cascades through our PlaySmart Initiative. As part of this effort, we are creating waterproof bear identification cards for hikers, and presenting PlaySmart Principles at REI stores and other public venues in western Washington. We are also a member of the Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Coalition. This group of scientists, non-profits, businesses, tribal organizations and an ever-growing list of individual residents is working together to advocate for the restoration of Washington’s North Cascades grizzly population.

Looking Forward

The agencies will publish a draft restoration plan for public review and comment later this year, and the final version is due in mid-2017. Defenders of Wildlife and our allies are encouraged not only that the government is finally undertaking this historic process, but also that there is already strong local and statewide support for grizzly bear recovery.

Public planning to restore a healthy grizzly bear population to the high-quality habitat of the North Cascades Ecosystem marks a potential turning point in the decades-long decline of the last grizzly bears remaining on the West Coast. Increased connectivity between isolated bear populations is an essential next step for long-term sustainability of grizzly bears across all recovery areas. Successful grizzly bear recovery and continuing fisher conservation efforts will make the North Cascades one of the only places in the Lower 48 with thriving populations of all its native carnivores.

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